This post is second in a three-part series on the City of Richmond’s budget.
Part II: Mayor Stoney’s Strategy: Bold. Smart? (today)
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney has spent the past month aggressively making the case for his budget. He’s held a series of town halls, pleaded his case on social media, and generally used the “bully pulpit” (emphasis on the bully) to try and get City Council to support his proposals.
I have seen and heard a lot of grumbling from Richmonders about Stoney’s tax and fee increases, and that shouldn’t be surprising. As his former advisor Thad Williamson pointed out in a post co-written with VCU’s Ravi Perry, Stoney’s budget represents “a major political risk and act of courage.” They are certainly correct in that proposing a tax increase is not exactly a political vote-getter.
And so Stoney deserves some credit for being bold. But is he being smart? Has he done everything he can to make his budget proposal a success?
I actually think the Mayor has undermined his cause in three ways, in ascending order of importance.
1. Show and Tell
In their editorial opposing the Mayor’s budget, the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Pamela Stallsmith and Robin Beres suggested that Stoney needed to articulate how bureaucracy had been improved before asking for more money. His administration, they argued, should “explain to residents which of the major recommendations made in the city’s 2017 performance review requested by Stoney have been implemented — and if not, why and when will they be.”
In response, Williamson defended his former boss in an op-ed, explaining how that performance review HAS been incorporated into the budget going forward. Williamson pointed towards a “One Richmond Roadmap” document that laid out the city’s plans. If we take Williamson’s claims at face value — although I’d bet many citizens are skeptical — then the administration seems to have a communication problem. If they are doing what they need to do to improve bureaucracy, how come so many people don’t know about it?
I’ve suggested before that the Mayor may suffer from an overabundance of programs and plans, from the aforementioned “One Richmond to “Richmond 300” to “RVA Green 2050.” Most of these programs have substance behind them, but it can be confusing to residents, even those that want to support the Mayor. What are they getting behind?
And in fairness to the Mayor, I have also noted before how very difficult to do the hard work of bureaucratic reform. It may be even harder to communicate about this work. The administration might consider something like a community dashboard, which some government transparency advocates recommend as a way of keeping citizens informed. If the Mayor is right that things are getting better, such a tool might help him plead his case more successfully.
2. How to Win Friends and Influence People
Thanks to the structure of city government, the Mayor needs the City Council to approve the budget. Stoney could have tried to involve councilmembers in negotiations and deliberations before the budget dropped last month. Instead, he clearly focused on rallying public support behind the budget in the hopes of pressuring Council from the outside.
This is a risky strategy. Not a single councilmember endorsed his property tax increase, and it’s very unlikely that a majority of Council will do anything but cut the budget. The dust-up between branches last week seemed to be based on these proposed cuts; Stoney and his administration seemed so ticked off that they threatened not to certify new real estate assessments, thereby removing even more money from the budget. But Council’s stance should not have been a surprise; as RTD columnist Michael Paul Williams noted about the council’s cuts, “who didn’t see that coming?” It’s not a true negotiation if you expect to get everything you want and give up nothing.
Look, City Council hasn’t helped, as they don’t have a very good process for budget negotiations among themselves. In the past, they have given the Mayor everything he wanted, passing his 2018 budget almost unchanged because they couldn’t agree on how to amend it. Maybe Stoney thought the same thing could happen this year.
Or maybe he thought trying to negotiate ahead of time would be a waste. Councilmember Reva Trammell was openly disrespectful of the Mayor at his budget presentation, drawing a rebuke from Stoney’s allies in the local NAACP. And Council is often where future mayoral candidates come from; Stoney may realize how hard it is to count on cooperation from potential 2020 opponents.
Still, the consequences of taking an adversarial approach may mean that he gets a worse deal than he might have gotten with a little more lobbying. Even if that’s just second-guessing, the sniping undermines the larger case Stoney is trying to make for a reformed city government. As Williams warned in his column, this divide means that “faith and trust in city institutions will continue to erode.” The budget battles of last week are bound to inspire thoughts of “’more of the same in City Hall,’ a place better known for internecine squabbling than the collaboration necessary to move Richmond forward.”
3. Suspicious Minds
But Stoney may have done the most to undermine his budget long ago, when he got into bed with Dominion Chair Tom Farrell’s development plans for downtown. There’s suspicion among many in the city that the tax increases Stoney wants now are going to somehow be diverted into the downtown arena, with taxpayers footing the bill.
Although I am not a fan of the downtown development plan (and wrote eleventy-billion words on the subject), I actually think the Mayor is sincere when he claims that one thing has nothing to do with the other. As far as I can tell, he and his administration truly believe that the downtown development/arena plan, when it is released, will show how the project pays for itself using future tax revenues, and does not take money away from current needs.
Me? I’m not so sure. And they certainly are NOT separate issues in the minds of some taxpayers. Their worry is that somewhere down the line the development project will need more money from somewhere; and taxpayers, one way or another, will need to foot the bill. It is hard for people to support tax and fee increases when they worry these will be stolen for a downtown boondoggle.
It might not be fair to criticize the Mayor for a lack of communication, when that has certainly improved since the Jones years. But his negotiating stance with Council and his decision to embrace the arena development plan reflect strategic choices. These may not look so great right now, although it remains to be seen how they will play out – not just in this budget season, but over the next few years. Maybe we will look back and see examples of bold political strategy laying the groundwork for turning a city around; or we may look back and see an overwhelmed mayor making significant mistakes. It’s a political cliché to say “time will tell,” but it’s certainly a true one in this case.
Next time: how the structure of city government makes all of this budget stuff harder to do.