Friday, March 07, 2008

Money is Tight?

I sit with two Times-Dispatch articles in front of me and I am a bit perplexed. Dear reader, this is not a case of my aged brain failing me. Rather, it is words and actions by the leaders of our beloved city that simply make no sense. I look at the TD front page headline of March 2, 2008, and read “Top Wilder aides’ pay up 13-20%.” ( Then I look at the headline in today’s Metro section and read “Wilder’s Budget: ‘Money is tight’.” ( Now, friend, even without reading these articles, you’ve got to admit that there is a breach in logic in these two stories. How can our CEO (Doug Wilder) claim that money is tight when his CAO (Sheila Hill-Christian) approves pay increases of 19 percent for Richmond CFO Harry Black, 18 percent for deputy CAO Saphira Baker, 17 percent for chief of staff Sandra Robinson, 16 percent for director of community development Rachel Flynn and 13 percent for Budget Director Raylord Harris? It seems to me this is a clear case of talking the talk but not walking the walk by the Wilder Administration. If money is so tight, why is it that the top executives of Richmond continue to prosper?

Today’s TD article quotes Mayor Doug as saying,

"Money is tight. Those who want to act as if the city coffers are full and growth is robust or will rebound quickly are deluding both themselves and the residents of Richmond."

Mr. Wilder has responded to the money crisis by limiting the increase in city spending to three percent. He also opposed cutting the real estate tax rate, calling any City Council attempt to cut that rate “a disingenuous election-year shell game.”

To prove that he is serious about keeping city spending under control, Doug proposed increases of 30% for his press secretary’s office, 17 percent for the CAO’s office, 15 percent for city procurement, 13 percent for the budget office, 10 percent for the finance office and 9 percent for his own office. To be fair, I must point out that he also proposed a 12 percent increase for the City Council chief of staff’s office (“throw the dog a bone”). To demonstrate that everybody in his administration must bear the suffering, Doug’s budget restricts pay increases for the city’s grunts to three percent.

Citizens of Richmond, something foul is going on here. It’s not just that Mr. Wilder’s budget does not match his rhetoric. What’s foul is that more than three years after we voted overwhelmingly for cleaning up the mess at City Hall we still have city leaders who have no concept of accountability for public money. The mayor, through his agent Ms. Hill-Christian, sees nothing wrong with awarding huge pay increases to top administrators while the average city worker is held to an increase of only three percent. What is worse is that the City Council has allowed the perpetuation of a system in which the mayor has the authority to make such arbitrary salary decisions.

The most shocking of Doug’s budgetary proposals is a 24% cut in funding for the city auditor. For our mayor to advocate such a cut is akin to the fox advocating extracting the teeth of the henhouse watchdog. (Put your gun away, Your Excellency, I am not accusing you of being a criminal). Auditing the operations of government is one of the guarantees we citizens have that our tax dollars are being properly spent. The keys to assuring accountability in our public servants are to remove temptation by strictly controlling how money is spent and for everybody to know that they are being watched. Recent reports by the city auditor indicate that there are inadequate controls in many of the city’s operations. Mayor Doug’s proposal to cut funding for the auditor’s office would, if accepted by City Council, convey to city employees the belief that nobody is reviewing their actions. I am not suggesting that public employees are a dishonest bunch. However, even though I trust my neighbors, I’m still gonna lock my front door at night.

Don’t think that I am limiting my criticisms to the Wilder Administration. There is plenty of blame to be borne by our valiant knights on the City Council. I have to agree with the mayor that all this talk of a cut in the tax rate is related to the upcoming election. Many of our council people have accomplished little during their terms and want to at least be able to claim that they have cut the tax rate. When I receive a report from my council representative (paid for I assume by my tax dollars) bragging about cutting the tax rate I have to wonder. Do these nine people really think we don’t know that we pay far more in real estate taxes than do any of our suburban neighbors? Last year I asked why we in Richmond pay so much more for government than do the people on the other side of the city’s meandering borders.
( I have never received an answer.

Another failing of the City Council is that it has not legislated systemic changes in city operations that would provide more controls on wasteful spending. Being our legislature, the council is not only responsible for passing ordinances. It is also responsible for oversight of city operations. If the City Council is serious about controlling wasteful spending it needs to sift through every page of the mayor’s budget and demand justification for every penny Doug intends to spend.

I have saved for last my views on the part of the budget dealing with Richmond Public Schools. The TD article this morning indicated that the mayor proposed to increase funding for the schools, “the biggest portion of the budget,” by 0.6% to a total of $161 million. First we need to look at the figures. The $161 million mentioned includes about $28.5 million in state sales tax money that the city receives for the schools. For reasons not clear to me, the city counts the money it receives from the state as revenue when it arrives and as expenditure when it is transferred to RPS. Since these funds are merely a pass-through, it makes no sense to me to consider them as a payment from the city. In fact, the city’s payment for public schools is only $132.5 million. This means that funding for schools is not “the biggest portion of the budget.” That honor goes to “Safety and Judiciary.” It also means that city spending for schools is not increasing by 0.6% but by only 0.4%. The fact is that city spending for schools will have increased by only about $500,000 over the three fiscal years 2007, 2008 and 2009, if the mayor’s budget proposal is improved. That $500,000 increase is about the same as the total salary increases received by our top city officials. In a city in which the perceived quality of public education, and the resulting exodus of our middle class, is an issue of critical importance, the mayor continues to show that he is out of touch with our real needs. If the City Council goes along with this miniscule increase in school funding, it will demonstrate that its members too don’t represent the true interests of Richmond’s residents.


Anonymous said...

You forgot the part of the budget where they want to add a wastewater runoff fee to our utility bills. You know, the bills that are already double what they are for people in the county using the same water and gas?
I cannot fathom the thinking of someone who has the gall to say that the budget is tight, yet he proposes a 30% increase to his press secretary's office? I don't know what their current budget is - maybe the 30% is just to pay Jon - but I really don't think we need more of our money going to toot his horn.
I don't even want to think about those pay raises, because I'm a city employee. I get to pay part of my salary towards my own retirement because there's no money, I pay over $500/mo for my family's health care, I have to pay for mandatory life insurance coverage I could get privately for about a tenth as much, and then I find out that the same people that are brazenly flushing my money down the potty are getting huge raises.
As far as I'm concerned, they should give Mr. Dalal and his staff a big raise (for having to wade through all the BS to find the waste, then have the mayor bash him for not being a good little mouthpiece) and let the rest of them have a 3% raise like the rest of us.

Anonymous said...

Guys, come on.

We know money is tight unless you are part of a rich cabal that demands public funding for their opera and ballet.

I thought that was clear now. Or maybe its not since the VaPAF/Center Stage project does not come under FOIA, despite the City and state taxpayer $.

Everything else is Bosnia, according to Pantele.