Monday, April 21, 2008

Costly Government

David Ress’ cover article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch yesterday,
Elected mayor comes at a price, reports that the costs of doing government in Richmond have increased considerably since we instituted our new elected-mayor form of government. Mr. Ress indicates that the change to our current government model has costs the taxpayers in the city “at least $13.4 million.” Further, the annual cost of running the executive branch has increased from $1 million per year to $2.8 million per year and that of the legislative branch from $1.8 million per year to $3.4 million.

I praise Mr. Ress and the TD for doing this excellent bit of investigative reporting. The report leaves a few questions unanswered about exactly how and why we are spending more money these days, but I assume that Mr. Ress or one of his reporter colleagues can fill in the details in the next few days.

It’s probably not unreasonable to expect that costs would go up between 2004 and 2008, the years that Mr. Ress’ story covers. Further, we should have expected that the transition from one system of government to another would cost us some one-time expenditures. However, the increases revealed by Mr. Ress are in excess of reasonable.

According to Mr. Ress, Mayor Wilder “and his spokesman” did not respond to repeated requests to comment on the story. However, the city’s chief financial officer, Harry Black, is quoted by Ress as saying,

If you look at the city’s budget of the past several years, you’ll find that Richmond’s spending reflects the trend of staying with the inflation rate of around 2 to 3.8 percent over recent years, and that is below the norm of about 5 percent for most localities.

Mr. Ress does not indicate whether or not Mr. Black’s statement is true. Unfortunately, over the years I have lost all confidence in Mr. Black’s ability to accurately state the facts. Unless somebody else verifies it, I’m not prepared to accept his assertion that the costs of running Richmond have risen less than the costs of running governments in “most localities.”

But, my major problem is the reaction of members of City Council to Mr. Ress’ story. None of the three members that Mr. Ress spoke with accepted the slightest responsibility for the increase in city spending. Ress reports City Council President Bill Pantele as saying, "There's an enormous layer of costs that have been incurred as a result, really, of the mayor's approach to governing the city," Mr. Pantele claims that most of the City Council’s increased spending has resulted from Mr. Wilder’s refusal to allow his staff to do tasks necessary for the council to do its job. Councilwoman Ellen Robinson, chair of the council’s finance committee, is reported as saying that the increased costs are a result of the confrontations between the mayor and the council. She said that these costs would not be necessary if the executive and legislative branches of city government worked together. She also blamed the increases in the council’s spending on a lack of cooperation from top administration officials which forced the council to beef up its staff, to get information and analysis that officials under the former government provided routinely. Councilwoman Kathy Graziano also blamed the mayor. According to Mr. Ress she said, "It's particularly amazing because when we elected a mayor, we thought we were trying to reduce spending. I think I'd just say what the mayor does: It's a matter of necessities not niceties, and it looks to me like we have too many niceties."

What Mr. Pantele, Ms. Robinson and Ms. Graziano fail to talk about is that each of them has been on City Council at least as long as Mr. Wilder has been mayor. Each of them has participated in approving at least three of Mr. Wilder’s annual budgets. Therefore, they, along with the rest of the council, have appropriated all the funds that have been used to cover the increased costs of doing government under the Wilder regime. They have had the opportunity to refuse to appropriate funds for the Richmond government that they considered wasteful but have not made that choice.

Our City Charter grants to the City Council all powers of the city except those assigned to the mayor or the chief administrative officer. Section 4.02. The two powers that the charter clearly does not reassign to another officer of government are the powers to enact legislation through the passage of ordinances and the power to oversee the operations of the whole city government. As do must legislatures under our American system of government, the City Council has the “power of the purse” in Richmond. This means that none of the city’s revenue can be spent by anyone unless it is first appropriated by the City Council.

Further, we as citizens have a right to know that our tax money is being properly spent. Certainly the City Auditor has a role in assuring proper use of public funds. However, the auditor’s office, under funded and understaffed, cannot do everything. The City Council must perform its oversight function. The council needs to constantly review the operations of all city departments and offices to make sure that our money is being used efficiently and lawfully. The council must be proactive in weeding out wasteful spending. It cannot merely sit around and wait for a diligent reporter like Mr. Ress to do its job for it.

So, if the cost of operating the government of Richmond has increased significantly over the years of our new charter, members of the City Council should not be looking only at the mayor to blame. Rather, they can see a big part of the problem by simply looking in a mirror.

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