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Wilder Budget Illegal? Only After He Leaves

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Richmond's on the verge of a constitutional meltdown! City services such as water and trash pickup have been jeopardized! Mayor L. Douglas Wilder may have even broken the law as the July 1 deadline passed without a balanced budget!

Or not.

The latest budget tug of war between Wilder and City Council, however, has raised a new set of legal oddities and unanswered questions. Chief among them: Observers say it's possible that top administration officials are violating state law by implementing an unbalanced budget.

State law requires localities to enact balanced budgets -- not to spend more than they expect to earn in a year. The budget ordinance that City Council passed last month is balanced. After alleging that council missed a procedural deadline, Wilder instead loaded his own proposed budget into city computers July 1 -- a spending plan that he has acknowledged runs $6 million over the projected revenue for the fiscal year.

Walter Kucharski, the state auditor of public accounts, says he's not familiar with the city charter, but that state law would prohibit the current spending plan.

"In the state [government], I would be calling the attorney general to come put a lien on that person's house," Kucharski says. "That's an illegal expenditure and the agency head could be personally liable. That's the mayor."

He sees a bigger problem too.

"Until you go through the legal challenge," he says, "I'm not sure which [budget] you've got." In other words, it's not clear which budget a judge would deem legal. There's little precedent for localities enacting unbalanced budgets, and Richmond's unique charter and mayor-council relationship make comparisons even trickier. Council and the mayor have already spent more than $1 million in legal fees on lawsuits and appeals clarifying the power of each branch since 2005.

Wilder spokesman Linwood Norman says that $6 million in cuts will be necessary, but still calls the budget balanced. "[Wilder]'s not worried at all," Norman says, "because his budget is balanced."

Patrick M. McSweeney, the former state Republican Party chairman and Richmond attorney who initiated the lawsuit that brought down the state's abusive driver fees, says the state law is mostly concerned with whether a locality's fiscal year ends in debt, not whether it starts off with a balanced budget.

"He's not violated anything if it's simply a matter of projections," McSweeney says, adding that because Wilder's term ends in January, before the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 2009, he still won't be in violation and the burden to balance the current budget will shift to his successor. "It may not be good management," McSweeney says. "[But] that's very often what politicians do -- they eat up their successor's ability to do anything but balance the budget."

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