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Richmond Budget Debate Turns to $4 Million in Handouts to Nonprofits



In Richmond’s yearly budget dance, Councilman Mike Jones has turned up the volume about the many smaller line-item expenses that go beyond City Hall.

During two budget work sessions last week, the new councilman took issue with money earmarked for organizations outside the realm of city government, while some city departments and facilities remain underfunded or understaffed.

“Everyone has a cause. Everyone has a noble cause,” Jones said. “But taxpayer dollars are going to things that are outside the city government.”

The expenses fall under what’s called the nondepartmental category of the mayor’s $681 million spending proposal. A recent budget sheet was missing the total for this category, but Jones says it adds up to about $4 million.

But that’s not the final figure. Council members have proposed amendments adding hundreds of thousands more dollars, such as an additional $600,000 for Venture Richmond, $111,598 for Sportsbackers and $180,000 for the performing arts companies of CenterStage Foundation.

Other such expenses include economic development grants and subsidies to multijurisdictional organizations, such as the GRTC Transit System.

Meanwhile, city departments say they need more funding than what’s proposed. City Council unanimously wants to add $2.7 million for fire and police. Several council members hope to land $400,000 more for staff needs at public libraries.

Jones, who represents the 9th District, is trying to find money to increase the Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities Department budget by $165,000 to hire two more full-time employees at the Southside Community Center, in his district.

To free up the funds, he’s proposed cuts of $70,000 from Communities in Schools and $100,000 from a Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority project. Only the latter has tentatively passed.

The city spent $2.4 million to buy and renovate the Southside Community Center. Jones says it does a phenomenal job with the staff it has, engaging 300 to 400 children weekly. But it remains understaffed, he says.

The Richmond Outreach Center, a church known as the ROC, once owned the sports and recreation facility off Old Warwick Road. But it sold the property in recent years after its pastor was accused, and subsequently convicted, of sexually abusing children in the ’90s.

Jones notes the church also received city funding for a time.

“That’s part of my argument,” he says. “We gave hundreds of thousands of nondepartmental dollars — and that guy was a pedophile.”

Jones says that the city doesn’t have the same levels of agency or transparency over the outside organizations, and he worries that City Council lacks the capacity to monitor the efficacy of that programming.

“I struggle fundamentally that we can’t fund this upkeep of our own assets,” he says, “but still we’re giving away hundreds of thousands to noncity agencies.”

Jones also isn’t immune from the urge. He’s proposed $25,000 for the Richmond Boys Choir. But he says he wants to ensure that the receiving organizations’ work affects all districts.

His South Side district gets left out of many downtown-centric, nondepartmental organizations, he says: “I’m tired of the ‘rising tide’ rhetoric. One hole in the ship will sink you, and the hole in the city is South Side.”

The council’s vice president, Cynthia Newbille, who represents the Shockoe and East End areas, has proposed the most nondepartmental budget amendments, 31 — including $55,000 for the Local Initiative Support Corp. and $50,000 for Caritas.

“In some instances,” Newbille said in response to Jones, “we do not have the resources to create what they provide in the community.”

Some council members resisted attempts to debate the merits of each nonprofit program.

“This is not a significant enough amount of money to be laboring so long,” Parker Agelasto said at one point in a discussion about $55,000 going to Richmond Public Schools Foundation scholarships. Council decided to cut them.

Like that foundation, at least one other nonprofit created to support city services is also seeking money. EnRichmond, formed to help channel outside funds into city parks, is asking for $75,000. An attempt by City Council to cut funding failed.

“We should talk about a penny if it comes from a citizen, whether it’s a million or one dollar,” Jones says. “Taxpayers should be screaming. As many times someone will come down [to City Council] to say, ‘Give money to this,’ there should be people saying, ‘Why are we funding this?’” S

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