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State delay hampers Richmond’s budget process

Stoney speaking while wearing a blue suit and possibly ostrich leather shoes (not pictured); Colette McEachin in white cardigan over black outfit with gold necklace
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Mayor Levar Stoney gives remarks as Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin listens during a press conference on Tuesday, April 18 in Richmond, Virginia.

Commonwealth’s spending on public defenders, education still up in the air.

Delays in passing an update to the state budget are affecting Richmond’s city budget, particularly regarding public defenders.

Mayor Levar Stoney proposed using $1.1 million to bolster public defender salaries, which have long faced disparities in resources and pay with prosecutors. Gov. Glenn Youngkin is proposing an additional $7.4 million — about a 10% increase — across the commonwealth to address increased workloads and reduce turnover in those offices, which could mean the city wouldn’t need to spend as much of its own funds to meet its policy goals.

But media reports indicate that state budget negotiators, made up of representatives from the Republican-led House of Delegates and Democrat-controlled state Senate, are still not on the same page about priorities and may not come to an agreement in June.

That’s when economic numbers come out and legislators finish their primary elections — but it’s after May 31, when the city needs to adopt a budget.

“It's a little challenging to understand what is going to come out in the wash as it relates to the proposed funding ... to compensate for the additional pay increases that the city has been picking up the tab for thus far,” said Councilmember Stephanie Lynch, who wanted to propose setting aside any additional funds as a result of the state budget to strengthen staff at the public defender’s office.

Lynch proposed a city budget amendment that would make sure the money stayed in the office, rather than going to another office, and authorize two case manager positions and three paralegals within the public defender's office.

Case managers with social work functions would help address housing or health issues facing people accused of crimes. Currently, public defenders sometimes do this work themselves.

At City Council’s meeting Monday, Lynch said the office currently only has one paralegal to go over thousands of hours of case work.

“Our public defenders are stretched extremely, extremely thin,” she said.

But Lynch’s amendment may have legal issues, according to LaTesha Holmes, council’s chief of staff.

“I would say I agree that perhaps the best way to account for this is to wait and see. Because if there is no funding for the pay parity, then our funding stays in to accomplish the goal that council approved over the last two years,” said Chief Administrative Office Lincoln Saunders.

Funding for the public defense commission is just one example of how the state budget delays hamper a city budget process that City Council and the administration must handle according to Virginia law.

Among the largest differences between state budget proposals is education funding, putting Richmond Public Schools in a similar position as the public defender’s office, although with millions more on the line.

And real estate assessments don’t align with the budget process — resulting in an expected multi-million-dollar surplus that councilmembers wish they could earmark now, when council has more agency over the budget than the rest of the year.

“Each year, I find that we are we are subjected to whatever amendments come to us,” said Councilmember Ellen Roberston.

Council Vice President Kristen Nye and Councilmember Cynthia Newbille said they hoped to keep the surplus for benefits for retired city employees.

“I think the larger issue is just needing to work with council on a revised surplus policy that captures all of the various priorities into one policy,” Saunders said. He said a surplus policy would need to be set by June 30, when the fiscal year ends: “There is a real deadline to getting that done.”

Jahd Khalil covers Virginia state politics for VPM News.