There's a new twist in City Council's ongoing investigation into the costs affiliated with the failed September eviction of Richmond Public Schools from City Hall.
Councilman Chris Hilbert, chairman of the committee investigating the botched move, wants to know more about the $250,000 that's been paid toward the lease of the building at 3600 W. Broad St. Richmond Chief Financial Officer Harry Black signed a lease for that property in September as a new location for the city schools administration.
Black was not authorized to sign the lease agreement for the city, never sought City Council approval, and attempted to sidestep his lack of authorization by signing a lease for one day less than a year.
But Hilbert has another burning question: Where is the money coming from?
Hilbert says he received confirmation last week that checks were being written using funds from a line item for nondepartmental services, which City Council left unfunded in the last budget cycle. His committee is investigating which accounts were being siphoned in order to fund that account.
The funding scheme is similar to the method city administration officials used to pay for other expenses related to the aborted move. For example, funds previously budgeted by City Council to pay for damage related to Hurricane Ernesto had been shifted to another account that, according to the budget authorized by the council, went unfunded last year.
City Council President Bill Pantele has referred to the shifting of funds without the council's authorization as "money laundering."
Sheila Hill-Christian, who took over as chief administrative officer just weeks after the Sept. 21 eviction attempt, says Pantele is overreacting. She says such transfers were commonplace before Mayor Doug Wilder took office. And she identifies the funds being used to pay the lease on West Broad as "unexpected additional funds from the Greater Richmond Convention Center lodging tax."
"I don't recall anyone calling us on the carpet asking what account code did that come from, and who authorized it," says Hill-Christian, who previously served in former City Manager Calvin Jamison's administration. "I'm just asking, let's have some perspective on the situation and not blow it out of proportion."
Besides, she says, the city can find other uses for the building. She's seeking City Council approval to use the West Broad building as the new home for three city departments scattered in offices around the city.