Council members scolded over spending measures amid Richmond budget deficit

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Richmond City Council members who are members of the Richmond Progressive Alliance were accused Tuesday of attempting to spend money the deficit-ridden city doesn’t have by bypassing city staff and guilt-tripping fellow council members into voting for them.

The City of Richmond is struggling to close a $7 million budget deficit that threatens to cut an array of city services and programs.

On Tuesday’s council agenda, however, spending items up for a vote included a new bathroom at Shields-Reid park, $50,000 for a program aimed at encouraging youth participation in government and a memorial bench at Nevin Community Center that was initially estimated to cost $4,000, but reduced after the dais decided in just a few seconds that it could be done far less expensively.

The items, all pitched by RPA members, had not been presented to, nor approved, by City Manager Bill Lindsay and his staff, who have been busy trying to balance the city’s most pressing needs as it struggles to close the deficit.

Mayor Tom Butt said spending measures on the council agenda appear to be a new tactic being used by RPA members to get the group’s pet projects passed. As part of an apparent strategy to secure votes, the RPA is attempting to make councilmembers “look bad” for voting against children or certain community groups, Butt said.

For example, RPA members on council questioned how fellow councilmembers could vote against funding the Richmond Youth Council, a group formed by RPA member Gayle McLaughlin when she was mayor. According to Butt, many proven youth groups are waiting in line for $50,000 in funds, and thus such decisions should not be unilaterally decided by the council but rather allocated by city staff in the context of the budget deficit.

While residents have demanded a bathroom at Shields-Reid park for years, Lindsay pointed out that there is currently a bathroom inside the park’s community center, while other parks in Richmond have no bathroom at all.

At several points during Tuesday’s meeting, new Councilmember Vinay Pimple shot down plans to fund RPA-led agenda items citing a lack of adequate analysis on costs.

Butt called the RPA’s latest strategy a “bad exercise of public policy.”

“If somebody in Richmond wants something, you can go find a council member, get that council member to put it on the agenda,’ Butt said. “And then you put all these other council members in the position…’Are you going to vote against these kids? You going to vote against this person who gave everything to the community? You going to vote against the people at Shields-Reid who need a place to pee?’ It never stops. You can make a case for things of life or death, and continue to put your council members in a position of voting them up, or voting them down and looking bad. ”

The mayor said he “resents” the strategy and hopes it is not the start of a new trend on Richmond council.

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