Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney recently revealed his budget, and it’s definitely a swing for the fences. His proposals include a property tax hike, a new tax on cigarettes, and increased gas and water utility rates.
Battle lines have already been drawn. A majority of the City Council has spoken out in opposition. (The always-eloquent Reva Trammell went so far as to say that “He's too young to be a mayor, he doesn't know what he's doing.”) The mayor has started a town hall roadshow to defend the budget plan.
Last year Stoney successfully pushed Council to pass a meals tax hike that is already being used to fund the construction of three new schools. It was a major accomplishment for his administration, for sure. But it may have convinced him that the city would follow wherever he leads. There are a number of differences between the meals tax and the current tax battle that will make this year’s road much, much harder to travel.
Last year the mayor had a compelling and clear single purpose for the meals tax increase: school construction. The results of years of facilities neglect were constantly being reported in local media. Stoney was able to make the case that restaurant owners would unfortunately have to shoulder their share of the burden of financing the city, famously holding up two pennies at his State of the City address to illustrate how little it would cost us.
This year the money the mayor wants to raise through taxes will be dedicated to... stuff? He wants more for a lot of things – more money for schools, sure, but also streets and sidewalks, eviction and housing support, and expanded bus service. These are all important needs for the city, and the government can always use more money to provide services to city residents. But what is the political case for these tax and fee increases now? And what can city residents feel like they’re getting in return?
Stoney is trying to argue he has increased administrative efficiency to bolster his demands for more money. His budget roadshow includes arguments that his administration is filing financial reports on time and increased tax collections. And his former advisor Thad Williamson fought back against inefficiency claims in Style Weekly this week.
But I’m not sure if these claims are enough to move the needle for skeptical taxpayers. While I was hopeful that Stoney’s efforts in bureaucratic reform would lead to changes in how Richmond government operates, it has been hard to tell exactly what effects these efforts have had. Maybe I’m reading this wrong, but I don’t think the public perception, at least, of Richmond government has improved very much.
Stoney could look to his brohim, School Superintendent Jason Kamras, for a model. As part of Richmond Public Schools’ spending plan, Kamras proposed cutting almost 50 jobs in the central office, with a savings of $13M. The practical wisdom of these cuts aside, Kamras at least recognizes the political importance of putting his own house in order before asking for more money from the city. The mayor is right that “we cannot cut our way to the top,” but taxpayers often need to feel like they are not funding wasteful spending.
And one big problem for that feeling is that hanging over the budget battle is Stoney’s long-gestating downtown development plan. At his budget town halls, Stoney has repeatedly and forcefully pushed back against the idea that one has anything to do with the other. But city residents are rightfully skeptical of Stoney’s call for more tax money when they are worried about the city dedicating millions in taxes to building a downtown stadium.
Through all of this, Stoney is strangely looking like his predecessor, Dwight Jones. As mayor, Jones never seemed to communicate well with others. A plan to build a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom died in large part because Jones had no chance of getting enough council members to support it.
I hate to sound like an American Government teacher – but, well, I’m an American Government teacher. And one basic fact about most levels of government is that we have both executive and legislative branches. The Richmond City Council, as a legislative branch, has the “power of the purse.” In other words, it has the main responsibility for spending by passing the annual budget into law. Stoney surely knows this, but he doesn’t seem to be acting like it.
Richmond, like most small cities, has a non-partisan government. There are no political parties to bridge the gap between mayors and councils, so personal connections and — for lack of a better term — “lobbying” efforts matter a lot. My read on the current budget is that Council was blindsided by these tax increases, or at least they weren’t consulted beforehand. Maybe there is more going on behind the scenes, but I don’t get the sense that the mayor laid any kind of groundwork with the Council to build legislative support.
At the national level, there’s a label for the executive going it alone: the “imperial presidency.” Presidential power has expanded dramatically in the last century, in part because Congress has largely abdicated any responsibility for checking it. This is not the case at the local level, where legislative power still dominates. Dwight Jones tried the “imperial mayor” route, and it didn’t work out well for him. His successor seems to think he can do it better.
Stoney is taking a page from the national model by taking his case directly to the people through his town halls, something Jones either couldn’t or wouldn’t do. I imagine Stoney is hoping that a groundswell of popular support for his budget will put pressure on Council to respond favorably and give him leverage to add to any threat of veto. We’ll see if this strategy works
And so, we have a mayor locked in a battle with the City Council; a stadium proposal hanging over the city; even a School Board in disarray. Richmonders should be forgiven if they’re confused about what year it is.