The main event in Richmond last Monday wasn’t, as one might suspect, at the National, nor at the Mosque, nor even the Diamond where the Squirrels played baseball well past 9 p. m. No, if you wanted real entertainment Monday evening in this ex-capital of the Confederacy, nothing could beat the exquisite interplay of egos and angst, and downright old town villainy that was on display at City Council Monday eve.
At issue was a resolution put forward by the council at the behest of Mayor Dwight Jones and certain powers behind the scene (hint: VCU) that wanted to ‘better’ Monroe Park. The idea was to lease Monroe Park (the city’s oldest park) to an entity called the Monroe Park Conservancy and thus create a private/public partnership with 3 million coming from the city and another 3 million that the Conservancy will “attempt to raise from private sources” to spruce up the place. The lease would run for 30 years. Sounds great, except the lease, that is the money the city would get out of this act of singular munificence runs to—wait for it –one dollar a year. Let’s repeat that for those of you just joining us: that’s one dollar a year, for thirty years. Or, thirty bucks. Or the price of a dinner for two at one of Richmond’s less stellar establishments. Without a bottle of wine, either.
So city real estate, assessed at 9 million dollars, or so, is leased to a private conservancy in a deal that will net the city exactly -2,999,970. Note that this is a negative figure.
There’s more, of course. The Checkers House which will be renovated to accommodate a restaurant/cafe will in turn be rented out….and that rent (possibly $100,000.00 or more per year) will not go to the city to help pay off the 3 million the city chipped in for renovations, but rather, it will go to –wait for it– the Monroe Park Conservancy! And no, even though the Conservancy will be sitting on real estate valued at 9 million dollars, it will pay exactly zero (0) in property taxes back to the city. Now, in all fairness, Mayor Jones, in a rare display of fiscal sanity, actually tried to work property taxes into the deal, but VCU, et. al. said ‘meh’ and so sadly, he folded because there was no other entity besides the Monroe Park Conservancy that would happily take such a deal, right?
Well, no. That’s not right, either, actually. There are probably hundreds of entities that would take such a deal. I would, for example. So would Enrich Richmond. So would Renew Richmond. So would activist, Mo Karnage, who tried to put in a bid on the park to delay the vote. The competing bid(s) for Richmond’s oldest park were all summarily rejected without explanation or notable delay. So there is the faint whiff of a sweetheart deal here, which, of course, tends to embolden activists. Or, just citizens concerned that the city is selling their public wares off faster than a street hooker who has decided to pay a really high price for the privilege of getting screwed.
Nevertheless, City Council President Charles Samuels assured everyone at the meeting that the park will remain open for all. As a passing note, Samuels is the district councilman for the park and he co-patroned the resolution to lease Monroe Park to the Conservancy along with Mayor Dwight Jones who is, yes, on the Board of the Conservancy himself, soon to be joined by councilman Samuels, if he so chooses. Funny how all this works out.
Despite such assurances from Samuels about public ‘openness’, the writing on the wall (and in the lease) is not nearly so blithe. The Conservancy will establish a list of “acceptable activities” in the park. If you qualify under their policy, you may apply for a permit to pursue said “acceptable activities” which costs $35 per event/activity. The Food Not Bombs folks, represented by activists like Mo Karnage, who regularly feed the homeless in the park, are not especially rich and $35 a pop to do volunteer work in a quasi-public park is not exactly a step in the right direction for them. That is, of course, if the Conservancy views their humanitarian efforts as an “acceptable activity” which it may very well not do because many on the board consider the presence of the homeless in the park to be a “security issue”; one of the main reasons for establishing the Conservancy in the first place.
Now, if you were to read the press accounts of these events you would be forgiven for taking a dim view of the activists who were reported to have ‘disturbed’ and ‘frustrated’ the smooth running of our erstwhile Democracy. Here’s Channel 8’s big takeaway: “Richmond City Council was supposed to vote on the future of Monroe Park, but people continued disrupting because they didn’t like the plan. Things got so out of order that at one point, council members got up and walked out.” Right. And the reason for this unruly disturbance of order? “All the commotion stemmed from disagreement over a plan to allow a non-profit to manage Monroe Park. People against the ordinance are worried about what will happen to the homeless people who live in the park.” Well, yes, that and the fact that the city is once again involved in an alliance with private entities to strip away control of public property for the satisfaction of the already quite well to do; and they are using approximately 3 million dollars worth of public funds to do it. And the fact that the City of Richmond apparently has yet to have a successful audit of property it’s already leasing and may be as much as a million dollars or more in the hole. And that the Mayor’s budget cuts the city parks’ budget by 7%. And that every single public commentator allowed to speak was against it, including ex-council person Martin Jewel who said, “You are creating an environment in which the people will revolt… And I’m going to join them.”
Activists shouted, one person was handcuffed and dragged away. Disruptions occurred throughout the meeting. Mo called council person Samuels a dingo or dingus when he tried to cut off her public comment, and council person Mosby pleaded for the attendees to show more respect, accusing them of wanting people in Richmond to remain homeless; which honestly made no sense at all. Not that the rest of the meeting was a profile in lucidity.
In the end, none of it mattered. City Council finally went on to approve the plan. Unanimously, I might add (which brings up another oddity: why were there no dissenting votes? Not one?)
At any rate, the evening was quite entertaining, in a gallows way, for a Monday, that is; a kind of opéra bouffe which was much better than the Squirrel’s game, whose stadium, by the way, the Mayor wants to move to Shockoe Bottom through another public/private partnership, I hear. Yes, Virginia, there are many people making money on these deals, but it’s not the City of Richmond.
So, maybe in lieu of all these ideas about private partnerships taking over our historic urban parks and plunking stadiums on slave auction sites and slave jails and draining our public coffers for the benefit of a very few, maybe we could just sell tickets to City Council meetings?
Ten dollars a head. Ten dollars and you, too, can bear witness to great theatrics, deep lessons on human greed and venality and cowardice. All in one night.
Now there’s a public/private partnership I could get behind.
~Jack R. Johnson
Here’s a magic trick. Tear down an old school (in this case Overby-Sheppard Elementary School in Richmond), build a new one in its place using nearly all allocated capital ground funds for school improvements across the city, and argue that this will help everyone in the entire school system. Magic, right?
It’s the kind of trick School Board members Glen Sturtevant, Kimberly B. Gray, Kristen N. Larson and Mamie Taylor don’t think the Richmond City Council should get away with.
The problem is relatively simple. Out of a 22 million dollar budget, 21 million dollars is going to rebuild one school, while all the remaining schools must somehow manage on what remains.
In an open letter to the council, the group of school board members wrote:
“… on Monday night you allocated less than $1 million for the facility needs of 50 schools and $21 million for the Dove Court School.”
“The allocation of the Dove School project is at the expense of the vast needs of our other 50 school buildings and the remaining 23,000 students that occupy those buildings ….”
The letter was necessary, says Kristen Larson speaking with Richmond Magazine reporter, Chris Dovi, in light of the state of the district’s other buildings. She noted that the currently proposed capital budget for schools works out to about $43 per child – a pittance.
And there are relatively dramatic needs that go well beyond the Overby-Sheppard Elementary School: a collapsed ceiling at Carver Elementary, holes in the roof at Fairfield Court Elementary, and exposed, overheating pipes at George Mason Elementary that gave one student there second-degree burns when he accidentally leaned against one.
“So if something breaks at Westover Hills [Elementary], I’m basically going to have to show up with my checkbook,” Larson told Richmond Magazine. “Westover Hills is slated to get a new roof in 2014 at a cost of about $400,000. What am I going to do if something happens?”
It’s not like this information should take City Council by surprise. Three facilities studies have been conducted over the past 10 years to help keep City Council members abreast of the current infrastructure needs for the school system. Studies they have apparently chosen to ignore.
For example, Overby-Sheppard opened in 1978 and is relatively young by the standards of the city’s public schools. Carver Elementary, conversely, dates back to 1886. Forty-one other schools were built prior to 1970. Only seven schools have been built since Overby-Sheppard. In the district’s maintenance plan, it ranks 22nd of 27 elementary school buildings in terms of expected building needs.
Michael Paul Williams writing in the Richmond Times-Dispatch was even more pointed:
“Whatever the objective behind the push to demolish and replace Overby-Sheppard Elementary School, it comes down to an indefensible case of preferential treatment.”
“The Richmond City Council — in allocating $21 million to rebuild a relatively new facility in better condition than the vast majority of Richmond’s public schools — has decided that the middle-class families it hopes to lure to a new Dove Court-area development count more than the children in deteriorating school buildings in other neighborhoods.”
Kirsten Gray spoke to City Council last night regarding the school budget. These were her comments:
“Good evening. I am Kirsten Gray speaking on behalf of the Alliance for Progressive Values.
APV acknowledges the good work of the School Board and their efforts to balance the budget and close an 11.5 million dollar gap.
In February, we urged the School Board to ask the city for additional funds to cover any shortfall, and they have done so. But that is not enough. The school’s basic needs still have not been met.
In support of our city schools, we ask you, our city council, to allocate more money to Richmond Public Schools – the $25 million dollars for facility maintenance needed for the upcoming year, and the $8 million requested by the School Board for programming needs.
We question the Dove Court School project.
Why tear down Overby-Sheppard, slated for cosmetic repairs only, to build a new school costing $21 million when we have 50 schools needing $25 million in maintenance and repairs? A collapsed ceiling at Carver, mystery black substance leaking into classrooms at Fairfield Court and Thompson, overheating exposed pipes at Mason which caused a student’s second degree burns, and that’s only to mention a few. Ginter Park alone needs $1 million in upgrades to remain open. To give 50 schools $500,000 for maintenance is unjust and an insult.
In addition to our schools being in disrepair, we have a supply and staff shortage. My daughter’s 9th grade language class has 15 books for 38 students and not enough desks to go around. From the guidance department, I hear they lack paper. In an elective course, there may be over 30 students, half with Individualized Education Programs and only one teacher – no aides.
We are talking about basics here, a sound roof over students’ heads, books and desks for every student, and a school fully staffed so that teachers can do their jobs and students can learn. These are needs, not wants, of our city’s schools, and until those needs are met, rebuilding a school that doesn’t need it doesn’t make sense.
You might say the Dove Court School is a done deal, however, if the city is willing to front and shuffle money at a moment’s notice for the Redskins, certainly you are capable of reallocating funds to cover the needs of the city’s students.”