City Council Recap-February 17, 2018

Highlights

There was a lively crowd present in the City Council Chamber on Monday evening. Members of the Richmond community came out in great numbers to express their support for the Mayor’s proposed Meals Tax Plan to generate funding for Richmond Public Schools. There were so many people in the audience that eventually seating ran out and an overflow room had to be provided. The City Council voted on the Meals Tax plan following a deep Council discussion and a lengthy public hearing.

Awards and Presentations

The Podium Foundation

Council President Hilbert recognized the Podium Foundation, an after-school program for middle and high school students with a focus on the literary arts, for their dedication to supporting Richmond’s youth. “It is so important to be able to express one’s self through literature and writing,” President Hilbert said. He noted that even though the Podium Foundation has been around for ten (10) years, their work often goes under the radar, despite the fact that what they do is of such great importance to young people in the community. “The written word is so important for our children,” President Hilbert concluded as he thanked them for their work.

Vicky Yeroian, the program direction at the Podium Foundation, expressed her gratitude on behalf of the organization for the recognition. She then invited one of the Podium Foundation’s participants, a senior at Richmond Community High School named Destiny, to speak about the Podium Foundation’s impact on her personal development. Destiny told the Council that her participation in the Podium Foundation’s program changed her perspective on everything in life and helped shape her as a person. She admitted that her first experience with the Podium Foundation did not go so well when she was a freshman student; but when she tried again as a sophomore, the second time was amazing. Destiny now writes poetry and is a rising VCU Arts students. “I did not think I would be doing this three years ago,” Destiny said.

For more information about the Podium Foundation, visit: https://thepodiumfoundation.org/

A Thank You to Ms. Gay Stokes

Councilman Agelasto and Councilwomen Trammell and Gray took time to recognize and honor Ms. Gay Stokes of the Richmond Department of Utilities for her dedication to the community and the environment. Ms. Stokes is retiring from public service after almost twenty (20) years of public service. Mr. Agelasto commended Ms. Stokes for her work in keeping Richmond environmentally responsible, especially with respect to protecting the James River. She has taught members of the community to have respect for and an obligation to rainwater through her “Build a Barrel, Save the Bay” initiative, as well as through reminding people to pick up after their pets in order to protect rainwater.

Councilwoman Gray thanked Ms. Stokes for her work with Richmond Public Schools students. “You’ve planted seeds in the next generation about environmental consciousness,” Ms. Gray said.

Councilwoman Trammell chimed in on how she will never forget how Ms. Stokes showed up with “Pick up the Poop!” signs at a community meeting many years ago. She commended Stokes for her attendance at many civic association meetings over the years. “I learned how to recycle because of you!” Trammell quipped. “I’ll never forget you; your legacy will live on.” Ms. Trammell also commended Ms. Stokes for always calling people back and helping them with whatever they need.

Ms. Stokes thanked the Council for the recognition. “I had a fabulous time working with storm water,” she said. “I will remember all of you; I’ll still be around.”

Friends of Forest Hill Park

Councilman Agelasto and Councilwoman Larson recognized the Friends of Forest Hill Park, a non-profit organization that provides support and assistance to the Forest Hill Park system. Thus far in 2018, the Friends of Forest Hill Park have put in 146 volunteer hours to contribute to the beautification and conservation of the park.

Mr. Agelasto characterized Forest Hill Park as “the oldest park and the gem of all parks” in Richmond. “You all are the real advocated for our parks,” he told the Friends, who go out on a regular basis to dedicate time to the parks. Last year, the Friends of Forest Hill Park put in 450 volunteer hours. Given their current track so far this year, the Friends are projected to outdo last year’s record. “You’re doing the work and getting results and making a difference,” Mr. Agelasto said. The Friends have focused on controlling and expelling invasive species of plants in the Parks, and have expanded their service range beyond just Forest Hill Park. “I appreciate everything you’ve done,” he told them. “Thank you.”

Ms. Larson, who has worked closely with the Friends, characterize them as “small but mighty.” She stated that she appreciated them for their work as great stewards of 105 acres of the park. “We can’t as a City do this on our own,” she noted. “There is a lot of potential for restoration there.”

A spokeswoman for the Friends of Forest Hill Park noted the importance of green spaces in a community. “Green space is important both physically and mentally – spending time with nature is important.” She thanked the Council very much for the award, which she called “the gold medal.” She entreated those in the audience and those watching to “Come out and help nature with us!”

For more information about the Friends of Forest Hill Park, visit: http://www.friendsofforesthillpark.org/

Citizen Comments

“I might as well leave the City”

Melvin Jones of the 3rd District says he understands why retirees do not come down to Richmond anymore. Not only are there no raises for retirees (while city employees do get raises) but there are also safety issues. Mr. Jones said that while driving downtown one evening, his car sustained damage from gun fire.

Mr. Jones also wanted to know why he has never seen a black person on the Public Arts Commissions. “I’ve spent twenty (20) years trying to get Maggie Walker on Broad, and I’ve never been appointed, despite being qualified. I might as well leave the City.”

Mr. Jones furthermore addressed the importance of holding contractors accountable.

He closed by leaving a historical memento for each Council member for Black History Month, and quipped that he’d be happy if he could get something for the damages to his car due to the shooting.

“Things never seem to change for black people in Richmond”

L. Shirley Harvey bemoaned that “Things never seem to change for black people in the City of Richmond.” She stated that the poverty rate in Richmond has been at 25% for over 40 years and she has yet to see a decrease. “We can do everything we want but not for our city,” she said. “Most jobs go to people who live outside of the city, and blacks now make up less than 50% of Richmond’s population.” Ms. Harvey declared that something must be done to change the people in the city. “Let us become useful citizens,” she entreated.

“A Suess-a-tional Day!" – Read Across America

Lola McDowell, a product of Richmond Public Schools and a semi-retired school teacher of 47 years invited the members of Council to attend the Read Across America celebrations at Woodville Elementary and Overby-Sheppard Elementary. She will be dressed in her Cat in the Hat costume to read to the children in memory of Dr. Suess’s birthday month. Overby-Sheppard will be celebrating on February 27th and Woodville will be celebrating on March 2nd. “It’s going to be a Suess-a-tional Day!” she said, giving Cat in the Hat hats to all members of Council. Ms. McDowell wants everyone to realize the importance of reading to children.

“A Travesty”

Roderyck Bullock spoke on behalf of the athletic facilities of Richmond Public Schools. He has been both a RPS student and an RPS employee, and he said that he is “tired of seeing the disrepair of the facilities.” There are facilities that have not been touched since 1987,” he said. He noted that of all City Council members, President Hilbert is the only member of Council he has ever seen at RPS athletic events. “This is a travesty,” he said. “We need to look at the facilities and either commit to changing them or fixing them.” Mr. Bullock found it disturbing that RPS students don’t get to experience their own homecoming games; they always have to travel to other schools’ homecoming games. “We’re not investing in our children,” Mr. Bullock said. “Athletics are often their way out.”

No Tobacco Use Policy

Keith Andes of the Richmond Professional Firefighters Association spoke to the Council about the implementation of a no tobacco use policy for all new hires to the fire department. “Firefighters have a 14% risk of dying of cancer,” he explained. “Tobacco has cancer causing carcinogens.” According to Mr. Andes, chemicals play a large role in killing firefighters, with many firefighters dying in buildings that were built with cancer-causing chemicals. The no tobacco use policy is a preventative measure that will reduce the numbers of firefighters that are dying of cancer.

United Communities Against Crime – Dads Against Domestic Violence March

Charles Willis of the United Communities for Crime has always said that “We must prepare for war in times of peace.” November of 2017, according to Mr. Willis, was the highest peak in Domestic Violence of the year. Mr. Willis was accompanied by a gentleman whose daughter and grandson were murdered in an act of domestic violence. On February 25, the United Communities against Crime and the Dads against Domestic Violence will be organizing a march from Jackson Ward to the John Marshall Courthouse. Sergeant Carol Adams will be the keynote speaker of the event. Mr. Willis stressed that is crucial to “save the lives of men, women, and children impacted by domestic violence.”

“Now is not the time!”

Teresa Ashe of the 9th District came forward to speak about funding for education. She stated that there is a necessity of fighting the State to keep them from reducing the funding for education. “Education plays a pivotal role in upward mobility,” she said. “Education and poverty are linked.” Ms. Ashe noted that it is already difficult to fully equip students with what they need; poor students are at a disadvantage due to fewer resources, substandard facilities, and less qualified teachers. “Now is not the time to take money away from the schools,” she said. Furthermore, she stated that, “We cannot keep telling the children about how poor their schools are while simultaneously taking money away from them. We need to put our money where our mouth is.”

Consent Agenda

PUBLIC HEARING

Opposition

Ann Neale Cosby, an attorney, spoke in opposition to Item 7: ORD. 2018-013. Her client owns the property adjacent to the proposed project and believes that the density of the proposed structure is inappropriate and not in accordance with the master plan. Her client opposed the proportions, as the building would be four stories tall, with the face of the building facing the doors of the complex where her client lives. The view will be tremendous and there will be limited buffers. She stress that there is a need for consistency that the plan as presented currently lacks.

(Item 7: ORD. 2018-013: To authorize the special use of the property known as 1090 German School Road for the purpose of a multifamily dwelling with up to 96 dwelling units, upon certain terms and conditions.)

Joseph Angelo spoke against Item 6: ORD. 2018-012. He stated that housing of 14 units would do undue justice to the neighborhood. He further noted that both parking and super cans (garbage cans) will become incredibly troublesome.

A spokeswoman from the Administration noted that the plan as stated does not leave enough room for super cans to be collected. Private collection is an option that has been considered but there has been no further communication on the matter. “It creates an issue of too many super cans.”

(Item 6: ORD. 2018-012: To authorize the special use of property known as 10 West Leigh Street for the purpose of permitting a multifamily dwelling with up to 14 dwelling units, upon certain terms and conditions.)

Support

Earl Bradley wanted to support the Education Compact because the City Council pledged to support it upon election. “We’ve got the plan, we’ve got the meals tax – but where is the rest? There is waste in the budget.” Mr. Bradley stated that the Council, School Board, and City Administration agreed to put people on the Compact Team to help the schools. “It should not be us against them,” he said. “Take care of your business.”

COUNCIL DISCUSSION

Councilman Jones announced that he would be abstaining from Items 7 and 8 on the Consent Agenda on the grounds that a densely populated housing unit raises public safety concerns.

Councilman Agelasto extended his thanks to the Mayor for making the nominations to the Education Compact team. “It’s taken one year to get this far,” he noted. The goal of the Compact is to foster more open communication between the City Council, the School Board, and the City Administration. Mr. Agelasto stated that now “a full comprehensive plan must be put on the table for review by the Education Compact team.”

All papers on the Consent Agenda were adopted.

Regular Agenda

AMENDMENTS

The Mayor’s proposed Meals Tax (Item 20: ORD. 2018-017) would increase the current meals tax rate from 6% to 7.5% for the purpose of funding the improvements for Richmond’s Public Schools.

Councilwoman Larson proposed an amendment to the Ordinance that would sunset the meals tax plan for the purpose of putting in a level of accountability for elected officials. Furthermore, Ms. Larson says that this amendment would give elected officials more time to look at the plan. “It’s important for folks to know that the tax proposal starts on July 1st, whether or not the paper is voted on this evening,” she explained. She asked that her colleagues consider admitting her amendments.

The Council entered into discussion on this amendment following the declination of members of Council to second the Motion.

Councilwoman Trammell asked the City Attorney, Mr. Allen Jackson, for more clarification on the Ordinance. “Does consideration of the Ordinance come back every year or can Council repeal it any time? Is there is rollback after five (5) years?”

Attorney Jackson clarified that the tax would automatically be rolled back on July 1, 2023 with the proposed amendment. Without the amendment, Council action will be necessary to repeal it.

“The public needs transparency,” Councilman Addison explained. “The rollback would need to be done as a Council process because there is currently a lot of miscommunication. Plus, the rollback would have to apply to all powers.”

Mr. Jackson stated that the sunset would be complex due to issues of debt. “In theory it could work, but in practice it may be difficult.”

Councilwoman Robertson expressed concerns about debt. “Debt services will not be paid off in five (5) years,” she said. “We’re borrowing $150 million. If we place a sunset on the bill, we would have to pay off our debt in full at that time.”

Chief Administrative Officer Selena Cuffee-Glenn stated, on behalf of the Administration, that she opposes the amendment. She said that the amendment is “fiscally imprudent” and that a sunset would put the City in jeopardy. “There is a need for sustainability if our goal is the renovation and construction of facilities for our schools.”

Councilman Jones made an analogy in order to better illustrate the complications with putting a sunset on the ordinance. “It would be like me buying a house while already knowing that in five (5) years I am going to quit my job.” In other words, he’s committing to a mortgage that he knows he will not be paying off in five years because he will not have the money to pay the mortgage due to quitting his job. “Transparency is always possible,” he said, noting that arbitrarily ending the paper is not a good idea. “This is all or nothing,” he declared. “We’re either going to do this or we’re not going to do this. We don’t know what will be going on in five (5) years.” Mr. Jones explained that while he understands where his colleague is coming from, he pointed out that Council has the power to vote for something today and change that vote next month. “We should move forward with the tax proposal as it stands,” he concluded.

Councilman Agelasto expressed his agreement with Councilwoman Robertson. “Having a sunset may not be the needed vehicle,” he said. He acknowledged that conversations are not transparent and that information is not readily available or accessible. He noted that last year $18 million was spent on debt service, 100% of which went to funding for RPS. He is not in support of a sunset clause but agrees that the City should make an appropriation to the schools. “We should look to evaluate a full, comprehensive plan.”

Councilwoman Gray pointed out that future City Councils cannot be committed to what the current Council states. She stated that there had not been ample time for discussion of what the proposal is. “We need more time,” she said. She commended Ms. Larson for putting forth this amendment, but acknowledged that she does not think a sunset would work.

Councilwoman Trammell asked Mr. Jackson to clarify the meaning of the word “intent” as presented in the proposed Ordinance for the meals tax (Editor’s Note: the full text of the Ordinance is provided at the end of this discussion). Her reasoning for asking for this clarification was that the people do not trust the Administration and the School Board. She wanted to ensure that the School Board does not take the money and not use it for its promised purpose: the children. “I want to make sure that that money is used on those children!” Ms. Trammell declared.

Attorney Jackson provided that the word “intent” is a part of the Ordinance’s caption, which is simply a summary of what the Ordinance does. “You would have to look at the Ordinance itself,” he explained. He noted that the caption as written may cause some confusion, but stated that the actual operative language is in the formal written Ordinance.

“So… the money is definitely going to the schools?” Councilwoman Trammell pressed.

Attorney Jackson explained that it is up to the City Council to dictate how the money is spent. The only limitation is that future City Councils cannot be held to the same rules.

Council Vice-President Newbille concurred that “transparency is paramount” and affirmed that vigilance and accountability are necessary for ensuring that the money is spent on the schools. However, she stated that she would not be in favor of a sunset on the Ordinance.

Councilwoman Larson acknowledged that there was not a ton of support for her amendment to the Ordinance, quipping that it seems to have raised more questions than answers. She was still concerned, however, that the proposal had been introduced only a mere two weeks ago. She stated that the Council really had not enough time to consider a proposal of such great magnitude and importance as this one. “We have to give it more time,” she stated firmly.

Council President Hilbert avowed that the minute he hears or sees or suspects that the money is not being used for its intended purpose, he will immediately put an end to it.

The amendment was voted upon by Council and was denied by an 8 to 1 vote.

(Item 20: ORD 2018-017: To amend Ch. 12, Art. II of the City Code by adding therein a new § 12-37, concerning the disposition of certain meals tax proceeds, and to amend City Code § 26-669, concerning the levy of a meals tax, for the purpose of increasing the meals tax from 6% to 7.5% with the intent of making additional funds available for the renovation and replacement of public school facilities in the city.)

PUBLIC HEARING

RVAGOV Editors were unable to be present during the entirety of the public hearing on the meals tax ordinance. However, many community members came out in support and in opposition to the Ordinance. Councilman Jones insisted that the children be given the opportunity to speak first, due to having to attend school in the morning and not needing to be out later in the evening than necessary.

Following the public hearing and further discussion by the Council, the Ordinance was voted upon and passed with a vote of 7 in favor and 2 opposed.

The following link to an article written by Mark Robinson of the Richmond Times-Dispatch provides further details into the vote, as well as the Mayor’s response to the passage of the Ordinance. http://www.richmond.com/news/local/city-of-richmond/richmond-city-council-approves-stoney-s-meals-tax-increase-for/article_87544045-8a29-58b6-a890-1a6f5f39f77c.html

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