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  Community Budget Meetings Attract Marginal Public Interest
March 12, 2004

The first of six community meetings intended to educate the public and seek input on solutions to the budget crisis occurred on March 10 at the Hilltop Mall Community Room. It was intended to serve residents of Hilltop Green, Fairmede Hilltop, Hilltop Village, Parchester and Hilltop Bayview. About 60 persons showed up. Approximately 25-30 were City of Richmond employees, generally consisting of either union interests or management participants. There were about ten consultants acting as presenters, facilitators and graphic artists. The mayor and four City Council members attended. There may have been 15-20 actual “citizens.” 

I was unable to attend last night’s meeting at the Convention Center, but reports are that the attendance was about the same as the March 10 meeting, but maybe fewer people overall. City Council members were not consulted when the meeting schedule was arranged, although we were later told that we were expected to attend all the meetings. 

The presentation of the current status of the budget was well done but similar to that previously provided to the City Council. With regard to solutions, the breakout groups worked primarily with a menu of potential cuts and revenue enhancements that have been circulating for the last couple weeks. Some citizens brought up issues, such as the cap on ChevronTexaco’s Utility User Tax, that the City continues to ignore officially. 

Between the consultants and the management staff, I estimate that each of these six sessions costs about $1,500 to $2,500 in consultant expenses and about the same in City management staff time. The argument continues to be made that exempt staff do not get paid overtime so there is no cost, but the approximately four hours (including preparation and travel) that each devotes to these meetings is four hours that they are not doing something else that perhaps is even more critical in solving the budget crisis -- like researching new revenue sources.  

On December 2, 2003, the City Council directed the city manager to research and report back in 90 days about potential benefit assessment districts to fund City infrastructure and services. That report is now ten days overdue. The Minutes of the December 2, 2003, meeting record the following: “In the matter to consider, directing the City Manager to research and report on the potential use of benefit assessments for infrastructure maintenance districts was presented. Councilmember Butt gave an overview of the matter. He stated that the resolution gives staff the authority and a timetable for them to look into and repot back regarding an area that could raise revenue for Richmond in certain areas and assist to alleviate some of the budget problems. Vice Mayor Penn asked why it takes a resolution to direct staff to carry out a request. Councilmember But stated that usually staff wants to get the City Council to endorse the fact that it will take some staff time to work through it. Following discussion, requested the City Clerk to place the matter back on the Council agenda in 90 days staff to report to the Council in 90 days on the matter.”  

Subsequently, staff reported that they were too busy working on the budget crisis to research potential new sources of revenue. 

At, say $5,000 per meeting and 20 citizens per meeting, we will reach 120 citizens at a cost of $30,000, or about $250 per citizen. There might be a more efficient way to do this. 

In a related action, the finance director presented the City’s second quarter budget adjustment at the March 9 City Council meeting. By all accounts, the current finance director is a very sharp cookie and has been credited with not only discovering the budget problems but also with masterminding the solutions. He could not, however, answer my question about even the first line item adjustment – deferring instead to another staff member who, inconveniently, was not present. This came as a bit of a shock to me, and as a result, I was the only Council member voting against the item. Just when I am about convinced that we have our arms around this, I am beginning to wonder. I recall that the previous finance director also had problems explaining the budget.