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Advocates say the mayor’s budget proposal fails to cut Richmond’s environmental impact

People holding red banner
A group of climate activists outside City Hall before a City Council meeting earlier this month. (Photo: Meghan McIntyre/VPM News)

Environmental advocates are concerned Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney's budget proposal isn't keeping up with previous commitments to make the city more resilient to climate change and reduce carbon emissions.

Almost 20 speakers representing a coalition of local environmental groups said at a City Council meeting this month that the budget continues to invest in fossil fuels and fails to take meaningful steps to meet the city’s commitment to climate equity - laid out in the RVAGreen 2050 initiative.

The mayor’s message in the spending plan does not list climate and the environment as priorities despite City Council unanimously declaring last year that a climate and ecological emergency threatens Richmond.

That resolution commits to funding new staff in the city’s Urban Forestry Division and Office of Sustainability, rapidly transitioning the city’s fleet to electric vehicles and equitably phasing out reliance on gas in favor of renewable energy among several other actions.

“The first draft of this city budget does not take any of these actions,” said resident and advocate Bill Muth.

At a press conference this week, Stoney said he was sorry to hear there are people who disagree with his budget, but there’s going to be disagreement over spending priorities every year.

“Our funding is not limitless, and we have many priorities in the city,”  Stoney spokesperson Jim Nolan said in an email. “We have to provide funding for public education, affordable housing and homelessness, basic city services like sanitation and street cleaning, parks, clean water, all of the above.”

Stoney announced the completion of the Draft Climate Equity Action Plan last week, which is a part of the RVAGreen 2050 initiative. It sets a goal for the city to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030 – and to reach zero emissions by 2050.

“If we are truly serious about this master plan that puts environmental justice at the forefront, we need to put our money where our mouth is,” said Elle De La Cancela, an organizer with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. 

The continued reliance on fossil fuels — and a litany of broken promises from governments and corporations — is putting the earth “firmly on a track towards an unlivable world,” said United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres during a press conference earlier this month. That warning came after the 2022 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report showed that urgent action is required to prevent irreversible disruption to the planet.

“Richmond’s longer summers are already resulting in four times the number of lyme disease [cases], a great increase in asthma. And our extreme heat events are putting student athletes, the elderly, pregnant women and outdoor workers at greater risk,” Muth said. “A 6-year-old child living in Richmond right now will experience 20 to 36 more times more extreme heat waves than her grandparents.”

The coalition, which includes RVA Interfaith Climate Justice League, the Sierra Club and Fall of the James Group, presented a collection of budget recommendations which were not included in the Mayor’s plan.

They include plans for reducing carbon emissions in the city by transitioning from gas to renewable energy, transitioning to electric vehicles and deploying energy efficient upgrades in facilities.

The mayor’s proposed budget invests over $200 million in the city’s natural gas utility, which is almost $40 million more than last year. The proposed FY 2023-27 Capital Improvement Plan - which sets priorities for building and renovating city facilities - identifies just over $100 million for the installation of new gas lines and system replacement over the next five years.

“To invest in more fossil fuel infrastructure now would be madness,” Muth said.

The coalition recommends forming a board to oversee Richmond’s gas utility and protect taxpayers from future stranded assets – like paying for infrastructure for non-renewable energy that might soon be replaced with renewable sources – and out of control emissions. It would examine the rising costs of gas main repair work, revise the city’s code to do away with subsidies and other gas promotions, look out for the interests of low and moderate-income customers and consider ways to phase out carbon and methane emissions

A spokesperson for the mayor, however, said the increased spending on the gas utility represents necessary infrastructure improvements.

“The utility has assets over $335 million that must be maintained in accordance with state and federal laws and standards for pipelines,” Nolan stated. “The amount of capital replacement changes annually, and is based on the most recent Distribution Integrity Management Plan provided to the [State Corporation Commission] and [Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration].”

Nolan also noted the city will commit around $1.5 million of federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to the RVAGreen 2050 initiative, which is headed by the newly-established Office of Sustainability.

The coalition recommends expanding that office, which is responsible for implementing climate action and policies in the city. Despite listing greenhouse gas emissions goals, the budget does not contain any concrete actions to reduce emissions.

The office’s budget this year is to provide startup funding, Nolan stated, with the hope of coming back next year with a fully vetted plan on new employees and additional operating dollars.

Another recommendation from the coalition is to expand the Urban Forestry Division, which would receive no explicit funding under the proposed budget.

Stoney said that the Urban Forestry Division is under the Department of Public Works, which is where it receives its funding from. Coalition members say that’s not enough.

“They are understaffed and under-resourced,” said Daniel Klein, resident and Richmond Tree Committee chair with Reforest Richmond, an organization aimed at increasing the city’s tree canopy.

He recommends the city fund two new positions in the Urban Forestry Division, including an urban forester. They would lead the creation of an Urban Forest Master Plan to guide the city in achieving the 60% canopy goal set in the Richmond 300 Master Plan.

The reinstatement of the Urban Forestry Commission - which hasn’t held a documented meeting since 2015 despite city code requiring monthly meetings - would work to create a new tree ordinance, and provide guidance and support for the city to maintain and enhance tree populations with the goal of improving the urban environment, Klein said.

“The only way to avoid total climate devastation is to end deforestation,” said Lee Anne Williams, co-director of Green New Deal VA. “And to care for the trees and green spaces we already have and plant many, many more.”

Some ARPA funding will be allocated toward creating an Urban Forestry Master Plan, Nolan said, but creating full-time positions like an urban forester will have to wait until the plan is completed.

Nolan also said the city is beginning to switch its fleet to hybrid and electric vehicles. Of the 97 Richmond Police Department vehicles proposed in the budget, the Fleet Department anticipates approximately 30-40% will be hybrid electric vehicles. Once charging stations are in place, that department plans to purchase plug-in hybrid and battery electric vehicles.

“While the FY 2023 budget may not solve all of the climate needs of the city, it does push us forward on this journey,” Nolan said. “And we will continue to make progress on this important issue.”

2nd District Councilmember Katherine Jordan, chief sponsor of the climate and ecological emergency resolution, said she’s working on amendments to the budget with colleagues to address the concerns from environmental advocates.

Jordan, along with 4th District Councilmember Kristen Larson, proposed two new full-time positions for urban forestry in a budget amendment work session. Jordan also proposed an additional full-time position for the Office of Sustainability.

5th District Councilmember Stephanie Lynch said during the meeting she supports Jordan’s amendments.

“I feel strongly and agree with the folks that came out today that the time to act is not now, it was yesterday or a couple yesterday's ago,” Lynch said.

The City Council will continue to discuss the budget over the next few weeks with the adoption vote scheduled for May 2.