In April, Richmond's budget process seemed broken.
Mayor Levar Stoney's staff walked out of a City Council meeting after essentially threatening to withhold certification of funding unless the council raised taxes. Council then voted to find a lawyer to sue the mayor. It seemed like Richmond city politics was going down the same road as always. As Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams lamented, it was a typical "heedlessness that breeds chronic skepticism about city institutions."
And yet, less than a week later, the council had agreed on a series of budget amendments that would fund most of the mayor's priorities, including money for schools, roads and expanded bus routes. And council preserved the current property tax rate, which was its biggest priority. Everyone issued polite news releases praising the results.
Was this all much ado about nothing?
Not exactly. There were real tensions between council's and Stoney's visions of the budget. Plus the council had to figure out what it was doing on its own, with each member offering amendments that varied in how far they differed from the mayor's proposal.
In terms of their view of Stoney, council members run the gamut from strong allies, such as Mike Jones of the 9th District, to those who spit on the ground when Stoney's name is mentioned, such as Reva Trammell of the 8th. As a result, the mayor clearly made a strategic decision to stump publicly for his budget, hoping to pressure City Council into getting on board. But that meant that the process was always going to be oppositional.
And as I've repeatedly warned, the city charter was just amended a dozen years ago to put in place a strong, or separately elected, mayor. Stoney is only the third one we've had under this system, and the first to really take a truly separate executive branch out for a spin. We've got to expect some growing pains. And maybe some grandstanding and drama as well.
Still, even if we see this dynamic, we also need to be prepared for the fact that next year will be harder, for two big reasons.
First is the strategic plan for the Richmond Public Schools. The council found it difficult to find the necessary $12 million or so needed to fund the plan this year. The school administration calls for almost double that amount in the following year. Where is this going to come from, if not property taxes?
And a second factor will make such tax hikes an even more difficult sell: 2020 is an election year. Stoney presumably will want a second term. If you thought tensions between mayor and council were bad this year, wait until all council members are up for re-election. Tax increases can seem even more difficult when you are fighting off a challenge for your seat — or when you might be planning to take Stoney's job.
Still, there are a few things the city could do to let the air out of the balloon.
First, council could do a better job of getting its own house in order. Right now it has no separate budget committee, so members negotiate amongst themselves as they negotiate with the mayor. And while I know the budget season already is a huge burden on what is officially a part-time legislative body, the public should be more involved. Having a single public hearing on the budget needlessly concentrates drama.
The mayor is not off the hook here either. If you want to use the power of a separate executive branch, you need what most governors and the U.S. president have: a liaison who lobbies the legislature. Not everyone on council will slam the door on Stoney, and he might have a smoother ride if he didn't just drop the budget in council's lap.
The rest of us need to recognize the harsh fact that local government needs revenue to pay for services that make the city livable. Do you want drivable roads, quality schools, libraries, parks, transit and utilities? Then you have to pay for them.
The council may have held the line against a real-estate tax increase this year, but it did so by cutting the capital improvement plan and leaving plenty of vacant city positions unfilled. This amounts to kicking the can down the road, which is something we do very well in Richmond, with just the sorts of consequences you might expect.
We also have to recognize that race plays a role in this budget conversation. This does not mean that everyone who opposes a tax hike has a Ku Klux Klan hood in the closet. But the city needs to see the long history of antagonism towards city schools and city bureaucracy as part of a larger, historic dynamic that pits wealthy landowners against poor minorities. Equity is a big word in politics these days, but it has to be backed up by budgets or it remains an empty one.
One thing is for sure next year: There will be tension and drama. And while this year's budget battles meant that a lot of ink was spilled — digital or otherwise, and some of it by me — no blood was. It would probably behoove us to calm down next budget cycle.
Just because mom and dad are arguing doesn't mean they are going to get a divorce.
Richard Meagher is associate professor of political science at Randolph-Macon College. He blogs about state and local politics at rvapol.com.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.