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Henrico outlines $1.4 billion proposed budget for fiscal 2021-22

The proposed plan would advance projects, services after last year’s “ultraconservative” budget.

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The Henrico County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday received a proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year that would strengthen investments in education, public safety, and other core services, provide a generational boost to employee pay and advance key capital projects, including the final ones from the 2016 bond referendum and a treatment-based recovery center for those struggling with addiction.

County Manager John A. Vithoulkas presented a $1.4 billion budget for fiscal 2021-22 that builds slightly on the plan that was under consideration last spring before the onset of the pandemic. Officials ultimately eliminated $100 million in planned expenses as a hedge against COVID-19’s uncertain impacts on revenues.

The proposed budget for fiscal 2021-22 includes a $983.9 million general fund to support most governmental operations. That represents a $21.4 million, or 2.2%, increase over the budget that was initially proposed for fiscal 2020-21 and an $84.8 million, or 9.4%, increase over the plan that was ultimately adopted with the extensive cuts.

“COVID-19 has made this past year challenging in many ways,” Vithoulkas said. “From a budget standpoint, we were extremely cautious last spring and set aside key initiatives, including many capital projects and employee raises because we did not know then how substantially our revenues would be impacted by the pandemic.

“Fortunately, we have seen revenues outperform our ultraconservative projections as well as growth tied to new construction, the hot real estate market, and strong consumer spending late last year. As a result, we have prepared a budget that will allow us to build a stronger, more vibrant Henrico County, with excellent schools, thriving businesses, and an unmatched quality of life for everyone.”

Highlights of the proposed budget include:

  • No change to the real estate tax rate of 87 cents per $100 of assessed value. The county’s rate has not increased, although it has decreased, in the past 43 years;
  • A $707.5 million operating budget for Henrico County Public Schools (HCPS), an increase of $65 million, or 10%, over the current year. The plan would support additional positions for the fall openings of the new J.R. Tucker High, Highland Springs High and expanded Holladay Elementary schools. The budget also would support the Achievable Dream Academy’s expansion to the sixth grade;
  • More than $224 million for capital projects, including the final projects planned as part of the 2016 bond referendum. Among these are a renovation of Adams Elementary School, a new firehouse along Nine Mile Road, and improvements to various parks, including the development of Taylor Park, upgrades to Tuckahoe Park and Three Lakes Park, and an expansion of Tuckahoe Creek Park. In addition, $54 million would be set aside for career and technical education centers at Hermitage and Highland Springs high schools;
  • $9 million for construction of a transitional recovery center, which was recommended by the county’s Recovery Roundtable to help reduce jail overcrowding by enhancing substance use treatment and other services for adults struggling with addiction;
  • $22.5 million in new funding from the Central Virginia Transportation Authority, which would support various road projects as well as sidewalk and other pedestrian facilities;
  • $4.1 million for initiatives to continue to reduce stormwater pollution and mitigate residential drainage;
  • $57.6 million for a comprehensive employee-compensation plan that would reward longevity, provide market adjustments for teachers, police officers, firefighters, and other public safety employees, and begin to increase the county’s minimum wage to $15 per hour. Overall, the plan would provide pay increases from a minimum of 4.4% for general government employees and 6.9% for HCPS teachers to more than 14% for employees who are eligible for both market adjustments and longevity pay;
  • $585,896 to support the creation of a sports authority, which would guide the county’s sports tourism program and oversee sites and venues, such as the planned indoor sports and event center at Virginia Center Commons;
  • An average increase in water and sewer rates of $3.05 per month for residential customers to keep pace with service and maintenance needs. Due to the pandemic, officials withdrew a rate increase that was initially proposed for fiscal 2020-21 and placed a moratorium on disconnections of water and sewer service for late or nonpayment.

The Board of Supervisors will begin its review of the proposed budget during legislative work sessions March 15-19. The meetings will be held in rooms 2029 and 2030 of the Henrico County Training Center, 7701 E. Parham Road, and will be available for remote viewing via WebEx. All sessions are scheduled from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., except for the one set for 1 to 5 p.m. Tuesday, March 16.

The Board of Supervisors will hold a public hearing on the budget at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 23 in the Board Room at the Henrico Government Center, 4301 E. Parham Road. A vote to adopt the budget is scheduled for Tuesday, April 13. Once approved, the budget will guide operating and capital spending for the year beginning July 1.

Copies of the proposed budget are available at Henrico libraries, the Office of Management and Budget in the Henrico Government Center, and at henrico.us.

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Trevor Dickerson is the co-founder and editor of RVAhub.com, lover of all things Richmond, and a master of karate and friendship for everyone.

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Virginia official says staffers are leaving mental health facilities to work at Chick-fil-A

“Part of it is some of those people do get paid less than you might get in fast food or Target or Walmart or something. And it’s not as stressful,” Littel said, adding that the state’s mental health workers are “doing lifesaving work every day.”

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At a meeting last week, Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources John Littel made an eye-opening remark about the state’s understaffed and overstressed mental health facilities.

“We’re losing a lot of people to Chick-fil-A,” Littel told the General Assembly’s Joint Commission on Health Care. “And hopefully the budget will help with that.”

The staffing issues in Virginia’s mental-health facilities are no secret, but Littel’s comment stood out as a stark anecdote about the dire working conditions for some state employees helping with the crucial societal task of caring for the mentally ill.

In an interview Tuesday, Littel, an appointee of Gov. Glenn Youngkin and former executive with the Magellan health care company, said broader worker shortages have enabled the fast-food industry and others to offer more appealing jobs to state mental-health workers who have had to show up to relatively low-paying, difficult jobs “all through the pandemic.”

“Part of it is some of those people do get paid less than you might get in fast food or Target or Walmart or something. And it’s not as stressful,” Littel said, adding that the state’s mental health workers are “doing lifesaving work every day.”

He said he was mostly referring to workers who may be in housekeeping or direct support staff roles and might make around $13 to $18 an hour. Recent Virginia job postings for Chick-fil-A, which advertises all workers get Sundays off when its restaurants are closed, offered similar pay, with some locations offering starting pay of $15 an hour.

According to the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Services, average pay for entry-level direct care jobs currently ranges from a little under $12 an hour to about $17 an hour, which works out to roughly $24,700 to $35,500 per year.

Broader worker shortages, Littel said, have prompted the fast-food industry to get more aggressive on raising pay and sign-on bonuses. He said he couldn’t venture a guess at the number of state employees who have left for fast-food jobs.

“I’m just sort of referencing the anecdotes I hear from people,” he said, specifying he was making an “illustrative point” that wasn’t meant as a shot at Chick-fil-A.

Littel said he’s hopeful the upcoming state budget compromise will include significant new investments that will allow for better pay and conditions for the mental health workforce.

“The people that work in the system are all heroes,” he said. “For people to choose that as a specialty and commit to that, that’s really important. They’re not what’s wrong with the system.”

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UMFS opens new $11 million residential center to enhance youth behavioral, mental health treatment

After an investment of more than $11 million, a longstanding residential treatment program that delivers trauma-informed care to youth working to overcome emotional and behavioral challenges has created a new multipurpose treatment center focused on healing.

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After an investment of more than $11 million, a longstanding residential treatment program that delivers trauma-informed care to youth working to overcome emotional and behavioral challenges has created a new multipurpose treatment center focused on healing.

UMFS, a statewide nonprofit leader in child and family services, has officially unveiled the transformation of its Child & Family Healing Center (CFHC). The state-of-the-art center took a year to complete. Previously, youth enrolled in CFHC lived in five separate cottages, originally built in the 1950s.

The 33,600-square foot center includes five residential suites, each accessible by separate entrances. Designed intentionally to promote safety and complement program enhancements, CFHC’s five identical suites each have a common area, full kitchen, group therapy room, family room, meeting space, and 10 private bedrooms and bathrooms. The center, which includes office space for administration and staff, can accommodate 50 youth.

CFHC serves youth ages 11-17 who are experiencing mood and anxiety disorders, emotional, social, and behavioral challenges and other traumas. Therapists, mentors, teachers, psychiatrists, nurses and other staff support the youth who live on campus as they focus on healing and building life skills.

“The new Child & Family Healing Center continues our long tradition of excellence in providing effective, high-quality residential care for youth,” said UMFS President and CEO Nancy Toscano, Ph.D., LCSW. “We intentionally designed the space utilizing a trauma-informed approach to promote healing in a safe and affirming environment. The upgraded center will help create normalcy while respecting a child’s need for independence during treatment.”

The center is one of the state’s only youth residential treatment programs to employ a “hybrid” security model, where youth can move freely throughout each suite and have supervised access to school, green spaces, a gym and other recreation on UMFS’ 33-acre campus. For safety, the building is regularly secured from evening to morning, and staff can secure each suite on an as-needed basis.

The CFHC marks the completion of Phase 1 of UMFS’ Be a Champion capital campaign, which aims to transform the educational and residential resources on its Richmond campus. Hundreds of donors and partners have contributed to the effort so far.

Phase 2 of the campaign is underway and will include an addition to the nonprofit’s Charterhouse School, a specialized educational program for K-12 youth who have special needs. The planned addition will allow UMFS to enhance its student services and expand programs. Demolition for Phase 2 will begin soon, and UMFS expects to break ground on the school addition this spring.

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Virginia lawmakers dodge questions on whether budget might include new policy on skill games

“Let’s keep ’em guessing,” House Appropriations Chairman Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, said Tuesday when asked for a response to the claim the budget could include a revised policy on skill games, either to tighten the existing ban or to lift it.

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By Graham Moomaw

Budget leaders in the Virginia General Assembly won’t say if they’re considering changing the state’s contested ban on slots-like skill machines through the budget, despite that possibility already convincing a judge to order a lengthy delay in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the ban.

Last month, lawyers challenging the ban as unconstitutional pointed to the legislature’s ongoing special session and unfinished budget to argue the case should be delayed until all sides know what the state’s official policy on skill games will be. But the General Assembly’s budget negotiators won’t even say whether skill-games are part of their discussions.

“Let’s keep ’em guessing,” House Appropriations Chairman Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, said Tuesday when asked for a response to the claim the budget could include a revised policy on skill games, either to tighten the existing ban or to lift it.

Knight insisted the budget will get done and said “fine-tuning” is underway.

“In negotiations, I don’t comment on anything,” Knight said. “That’s how I work a negotiation.”

Asked about potential skill games changes Tuesday after a meeting in Richmond, Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, one of the 14 legislators working on the state budget, deferred to Senate Finance Chairwoman Janet Howell, D-Fairfax. Howell did not attend Tuesday morning’s Senate Finance Committee meeting, and she did not respond to an emailed request for comment Monday. In an email, a Senate budget staffer said “budget negotiations are ongoing.”

As Virginia recently relaxed laws to allow more types of state-sanctioned gambling, skill games have become a perennial point of contention. Usually found in convenience stores, sports bars and truck stops, they function similarly to chance-based slot machines but involve a small element of skill that allows backers to argue they’re more akin to traditional arcade games. Most machines involve slots-like reels and spins, but players have to slightly adjust the squares up or down in order to create a winning row of symbols.

Proponents insist the games are legal and give small Virginia business owners a piece of an industry dominated by big casino interests. In 2019, the chief prosecutor in Charlottesville concluded that they amount to illegal gambling devices, and critics have accused the industry of exploiting loopholes to set up a lucrative gaming enterprise that rapidly grew with minimal regulatory oversight.

After a one-year period of regulation and taxation to raise money for a COVID-19 pandemic relief fund, the critics won out in the General Assembly, with a ban on the machines taking effect in July 2021. But a Southside business owner who filed a lawsuit with the assistance of Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, successfully won a court injunction late last year barring enforcement of that law until his legal challenge is resolved. After Stanley wrote a letter pointing to the special session and unfinished budget talks as a reason to delay a hearing scheduled for May 18, the judge overseeing the case postponed the hearing until Nov. 2. The order also prohibited the state from enforcing the ban against thousands of previously regulated skill machines until November. The order doesn’t apply to machines that weren’t fully legal before the ban took effect, a distinction sowing confusion for local officials trying to sort out what’s allowed and what’s not.

In recent social media posts, the plaintiff challenging the ban, truck stop owner and former NASCAR driver Hermie Sadler, said the delay was requested because “legislators are threatening to now try to ban or legislate skill games through the budget.”

“So we need to know what we are fighting against,” Sadler said in a message posted to Twitter last week in response to a Virginia Mercury article about the delay.

Skill-game supporters have claimed the ban was driven by other gambling interests who want to clear out smaller competitors to make more money for themselves. As the gambling turf wars continue in Richmond, some local governments are frustrated by the lack of clarity on whether the state is or isn’t banning the machines.

“It’s created chaos,” said Franklin City Manager Amanda Jarratt.

Jarratt said her city has been dealing with crime and other disturbances associated with the machines, but has gotten little help because there’s no regulatory agency in charge of them. Virginia ABC had temporary oversight of the machines starting in 2020, but that ended when the ban took effect last year and ABC no longer had legal responsibility over gaming machines in ABC-licensed businesses.

“It continuing to drag on over months is only making the situation worse and leaving localities in a difficult position,” she said, adding her city simply doesn’t have the staffing power to try to figure out which machines are operating legally and which are illegal. “You want to be fair to the business owners, but you also need to look out for the best interest of the locality as a whole.”

Jarratt said she’d like clearer direction on whether the state is going to allow the machines or not.

If a new skill-game provision is put into the state budget, it would still need to win approval from the full General Assembly. But with the clock ticking to pass a budget before the fiscal year ends June 30, it’s unclear how open party leaders would be to changes to whatever deal budget negotiators present as the final product of months of work.

Knight offered little clarity on whether skill games are even a live issue. He also seemed to caution against putting too much stock into what people say they’re hearing about the budget.

“I heard that we were going to do the budget today. I heard we were going to do it on the 24th. I heard we were going to do it on the 27th. I’ve heard June the first. I’ve heard a lot of things,” Knight said. “But as far as I know, the only people that know are maybe a few budget conferees. And we’re not talking. Because we’re working to get things right.”

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Robert Zullo for questions: [email protected] Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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