News & Features » News and Features

Moving Costs



Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, who has proved himself after three years in office as a combative lawsuit magnet, also is proving himself to be an expensive date for taxpayers.

Add to the list Wilder's aborted eviction of Richmond Schools on Sept. 21: While the costs are still being tabulated, internal documents obtained by Style Weekly show the initial bill for the various contracts associated with the move are in excess of $300,000.

Early estimates by Wilder's spokesman — later dismissed by Wilder himself — indicated that the move could cost the city $500,000. It already has cost much more. The $300,000 in billable expenses included only the cost of movers and various upgrades to the 3600 W. Broad St. building that Wilder planned as the new School Board location. It doesn't include the cost of the lease of the building.

In fact, Wilder and his deputies had made provisions to spend as much as $1 million on the aborted Sept. 21 move, according to the administration's internal communications.

Included in internal e-mails and records of expenses related to the move, which Style obtained last week, is a confidential administration briefing paper showing administration officials did not believe they needed authorization from City Council to spend the $1 million. Instead, they'd identified two sources of funding — $500,000 each — that allowed them to divert money from one internal account to another.

Such fund transfers between accounts are allowed without council approval to deal with unanticipated funding needs within departments.

Documents show that the first $500,000 identified in the Department of Public Utilities budget that had been slated to pay Hurricane Ernesto-related city debts. The second $500,000 came from $2.3 million that had been allocated by City Council to pay for 2008 performance-based salary adjustments — bonuses and raises to city employees.

In rationalizing the use of nearly a quarter of the allocated salary adjustment money, the author of the confidential planning paper writes that "the current budgeted amount of $2.3 million might not be fully expended."

One summary document included in a report titled "confidential briefing paper" itemizes the expenses of the evening — including the costs to prepare 3600 W. Broad St. as a new location for the School Board offices — and provides a total estimated cost to taxpayers of $318,099.91.

The 364-day lease on 3600 W. Broad St. signed by Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Harry Black will cost more than $560,000. Wilder has waffled in the days since Sept. 21 about whether the city might be able to renegotiate or cancel this lease.

It also doesn't include the estimated $116,600 cost to Richmond Public Schools in overtime and lost productivity to RPS employees who returned the following Monday to find the school system's administrative offices in shambles.

Nor does it include the $9,700 estimated cost for damaged, destroyed or missing schools property.

And it doesn't account for additional costs that would have been incurred had the move been completed, including an estimated $300,000 to move large electric filing cabinets — an estimate from bid proposals received by RPS Chief Financial Officer Tom Sheeran.

Or the cost of overtime pay for Richmond Police Department officers — 21 of them — who helped cordon off City Hall and deny the public access to a public meeting of the School Board on the 17th floor.

It also doesn't count the cost of the lawyers. The various lawsuits filed by the School Board and City Council against Wilder have so far cost an estimated $514,917.71 in legal fees to outside lawyers.

And there's also the cost of an emergency audit of the city assessor's office called for by Wilder despite plans already in the works to conduct an audit of the department. A Washington, D.C., accounting firm earned $269,000 for its work, around $220,000 more than the planned audit. Wilder also had attempted to force a similar outside audit of schools, retaining the same D.C. firm, but School Board officials successfully fought that attempt, which would have cost another $250,000.

Even Ronald McDonald got a piece of the action on the morning of Sept. 22. To feed hungry employees and subcontractors involved in fulfilling a judge's order to return School Board's belongings to City Hall, a city credit card belonging to city procurement official Erna Robinson shows Richmond taxpayers bought $827.67 worth of McDonald's sausage, egg and cheese biscuits and hash browns.

An additional $480.18 was spent on Papa John's pizza and deli items from Kroger and Wal-Mart. Janice's Kitchen, a mobile cafeteria, made $4,778.50 for feeding the troops on the night of Sept. 21. In total, during the two days of the aborted move, the city paid more than $1,300 for "liquid refreshments" from Diamond Springs Water.

Dates on e-mails sent between various administration officials indicate that much of the move's cost — specifically the cost of retrofitting 3600 W. Broad St. with necessary technology upgrades — remained unknown to top officials until days after the aborted attempt. In a Sept. 25 e-mail from Laura Wicker, the city's director of information technology, sent to procurement department head Eric Mens, Wicker breaks down the $126,543.50 in total cost of those upgrades by individual contracts.

If Wilder and his deputies had been less than detailed in planning the cost of the move, they were preparing well ahead of time for the unavoidable questions the public would ask about their actions.

A cheat sheet of prepared answers — many closely matching answers provided Sept. 21 by Wilder's spokesman, Linwood Norman — shows carefully crafted evasions.

In one instance, the crib sheet deals with the likely question of what would happen should City Council decline to pay the rent on 3600 W. Broad St.

"Let's take this one step at a time," the prepared answer reads. "Let's first see whether the Council will appropriate the monies in the budget next year before we deal with hypothetical situations."

The PR crib sheet makes frequent mention of $1 million a year in anticipated savings, with many of the planned answers using that money as a carrot for why the city sought to evict schools.

But one anticipated question had no planned response: "When will we be able to see written proof that there will be savings?"

In court the week after the aborted eviction, Wilder's team finally revealed its $1 million-yearly savings plan: Turn the city-owned 700 Theater Row building into a revenue-generating cash cow by moving city agencies out and rent-paying tenants in.

When City Council President Bill Pantele took the stand Sept. 26, he shot holes in the mayor's money-making scheme. The city's bond note on the Theater Row property required that the portion currently leased to city departments be occupied by government tenants and that failure to meet those terms would result in sizable penalty payments.

In the days following the aborted move, it appeared that Black was worried about providing answers to his boss as well.

In an e-mail sent Sept. 22, Black instructs Eric Mens and others involved in the move to prepare a briefing for him for the following Monday morning. Black gives a practical reason for needing answers quickly.

"As you can imagine I will be hit throughout the day by the Mayor and others, as well as the media," Black writes. "So the sooner that I can get this info., we can put a lot of this to rest." S

  • Click here for more News and Features
  • Add a comment