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Funds Withdrawn: Council Ponders Prosecuting Black

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By withholding funds from Richmond Public Schools, Harry Black is flouting City Council's intent as well as the law, say City Council President Bill Pantele and other council members.

The 2007-08 fiscal-year budget that council passed includes a provision making it a Class 3 misdemeanor for city employees to willfully not provide payment of budgeted funds to Richmond Public Schools. The offense is punishable with a $500 fine and with a ban on future employment in Richmond government.

"I think that the law that City Council passed is as clear as can be," Pantele says. "I have heard that [Black] is making some kind of distinction between budget authority and cash -- and I don't know what that means."

Black did not respond to a request from Style to explain his reasoning. Last Thursday, he gave council's finance committee what Pantele and others deemed a wishy-washy explanation of cash-management policy.

As of July 19, Black has withheld $24,313 from schools requests totaling $1.3 million. Black also says he's not yet paid end-of-year funds because schools failed to ask for the correct amount — approximately $178,240. Black told a befuddled finance committee that he's using a rule of thumb of knocking 25 percent off all requests, not including salaries or benefits payment requests.

If Black's actions are deemed to be in violation, council could recommend that City Attorney Norman Sales investigate and prosecute Black.

Pantele says he's willing to withhold judgment on whether to prosecute until September, when school is back in session and payment of vendors and teachers, as well as financing of day-to-day operations, becomes more critical.

"I know what City Council meant," Pantele says. "Our budget appropriations are mandatory, and not subject to political or administrative discretion except in very narrow circumstances."

At least one city council member, Chris Hilbert, doesn't want to wait.

"I think it has risen to a level of looking into the matter," says Hilbert, who confirmed that council wrote criminal consequences into the budget ordinance "to make sure that the budget was followed — to make sure there weren't arbitrary and capricious ideas that we would spend this money and not spend that money."

Councilwoman Kathy Graziano says she's undecided about whether the budget should be legally enforced, but thinks a hard look at the city charter is in order. "I think what we need to do with the mayor is to get an outside [neutral] group together to do a charter revision," she says. "So it spells out who does what."

Pantele says he's disturbed that Black's actions appear so politically motivated. He says the charter clearly spells out that "the chief administrative officer and the director of finance operate as professional administrators and not as mere political appointees."

"I think Harry Black has made it pretty clear that he's operating more as a deputy mayor than he is as a professional administrator," Pantele says, "and that's too bad." S

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