© 2019 Thad Williamson. Authorized and Paid For By Thad Williamson For Richmond City Council.

  • Thad Williamson

Doing the Work of City Council, 2/4: The Budget Process and Policy Making

This week, Richmond Public Schools released the startling statistic that just 10% of our high school students are college or career-ready. National data indicates that the City of Richmond is one of the worst 2% of counties in the United States in which to grow up if your parents are low-income.

These data underscore the crisis in our communities and the urgency of making tangible change and progress. That’s why from day one of this campaign I have said that bolstering education and fighting poverty—the two must go hand-in-hand—are my top priorities, and why improving local government effectiveness is critical to achieving those core goals.

It’s all-too-easy to offer sideline critiques of the decisions made by our city government.

What’s much harder—and much more important—is getting involved hands-on in moving more resources to where they are needed most: our kids and our neighbors in economic need.

I am the candidate in this race with a track record of doing just that. As a community member and co-chair of the City’s poverty-fighting initiative in 2013-14, I worked alongside Councilwoman Ellen Robertson and dozens of community members to get new investments in the city budget supporting after-school programs, early literacy, workforce development, housing, transportation and more, as well as to create the Office of Community Wealth Building (OCWB).

As a director of a city agency (OCWB), I saw the budget process from the inside: good, bad, and ugly. Many citizens do not realize that every year literally every agency has requests and needs cut by the administration’s internal process. The administration is bound to present a balanced budget, and each year it tries to balance continuation and improvement of existing services, legal obligations, addressing potential threats to public safety, meeting the requests of schools, and undertaking new initiatives (be they mayoral priorities or community demands).

The needs in Richmond—for new schools, for better paid teachers, for more investments in fighting poverty and helping residents find pathways to prosperity, for expanding and improving the supply and quality of affordable housing—are large. The dollars available to meet those needs are too few. And much as we would all like the state or the federal government to intervene and appear at the doorstep with many millions of new dollars, that is not likely to happen any time soon, and not all at once.

This is what it means to recognize Richmond is a structurally challenged city. We have way more than our share of challenges, and way too small of a tax base to handle them.

This is a reality I have been grappling with over the last six years in my various roles engaged with Richmond local government. And while the process hasn’t always been pretty, I have been able to work within the process to drive and achieve change:

· Expanding funding for workforce development through the Office of Community Wealth Building (and then helping secure a state matching grant to double its budget)

· Providing City support for educational initiatives such as NextUp RVA (after school programs) and RVA Future Centers (helping students apply for college and scholarships)

· Developing the Education Compact which has led to more operating funding for RPS and more school construction funds

· Working with the Budget and Strategic Planning department to reform the City’s external grant process for nonprofits to make sure funded programs are better aligned with the City’s goals

· Working with Budget and Strategic Planning as well as all agencies to establish a new Performance Management unit

What I have learned from this engagement is threefold: first, everything that is in the city budget, as it stands, is there for a reason. Every item in there is important to someone.

Second, too often not enough tough questions are asked about just how important particular items or programs are—either by the administration, or by City Council as a body.

Third, and most important, to make progress towards meeting our most important needs, we need to be very clear on our priorities, need to have a clear strategy for how to better meet those priorities over time, and we have to identify the specific action steps that can move us forward, using a skillful scalpel.

I believe that to truly improve our kids’ likelihood of academic and career success and to create a thriving City, we have to invest more in kids and families, and we have to move more aggressively to tackle poverty. To do this without raising taxes will require more economic development and a stronger tax base, as well as better stewardship of the resources we already have.

With respect to the annual budget process, I’ll be asking three big questions, of every agency seeking money:

· How important is the work of the agency or program to the city as a whole?

· What is the expected benefit or return from meeting the agency’s request?

· How likely is the agency to be able to effectively execute on its priorities, if funded?

Based on my experience and first-hand knowledge of city government, I can already point to five specific priorities that I believe are under-funded and would generate significant benefit from increased funding: early childhood education, workforce development (which must continue to grow in scale), the permitting process, investments in roads and sidewalks, and investment in the city’s own Performance Management unit.

This list is not exhaustive. But it shows that we need to be investing in people, investing in our infrastructure, investing in economic growth, and attending to the city’s internal organizational needs—all at the same time.

The Performance Management office is potentially the key piece to this puzzle. That unit needs to be properly funded so that it can both ask the hard questions internally and assess and identify opportunities for saving and efficiencies within the agencies.

The annual budget process is the most important single thing City Council does. I am prepared on December 1, 2019 to weigh in on the FY 2020 budget on equal footing with other Council members, and indeed the added benefit of my administrative experience.

Prior to the FY 2020 budget proposal being announced, I will share with the administration both my citywide and my district-specific priorities, and I will make public what I share with them.

Once the budget proposal is published I will study the documents closely as well as the presentations to Council made by each agency, and I will prepare detailed questions for the administration and its component agencies concerning what they did (and did not) fund. I know how to ask hard questions, and the questions I have asked behind closed doors in previous roles I will be more than happy to ask in a public setting as a Council member thoroughly vetting the proposed budget.

I will work constructively with other colleagues to build consensus on needed amendments to the Mayor’s proposed budget. And I will explain my reasoning and final positions to 5th District residents, in detail.

The same priorities, attention to detail, and commitment to explaining my votes I will apply to the budget process as 5th District Representative, I will apply to other policy questions as well.

But as this discussion already shows, the budget and policy process can’t be separated from the question of how well the administration is actually executing on its priorities. That leads us to the subject of the next post: holding the Administration accountable.

Coming Next: ¾: Holding the Administration Accountable