In his final State of the City address Thursday evening, Mayor Dwight C. Jones announced a proposal to include on the November ballot an advisory referendum on raising the city’s real estate tax rate to fund public schools' projects.
“While we already have high real estate taxes in Richmond, public sentiment appears to be growing for major new investments in public schools,” Jones said. “But preliminary estimates suggest the RPS needs could cost over 15 cents more [per $1,000 of assessed value] in new real estate taxes. Such an increase is a major decision and one the public should be deeply involved in.”
The city’s tax rate currently sits at $1.20 per $1,000 dollars of assessed value. Jones’s proposal marks a reversal from his administration’s previous attempts to lower the city’s real estate tax rate, which council rebuked last year.
Richmond Public Schools Supt. Dana Bedden said in a phone interview Friday morning he learned of the referendum proposal after the speech.
“If a referendum is held, I think it’s very important for it to be specific about what the tax increase would pay for rather than a general question about increasing taxes,” Bedden said.
Regardless of whether a referendum is held in November, the superintendent said he doesn’t think it will affect the upcoming budget negotiations in the spring. His administration’s initial estimate included $26 million more in operational funding for the school division, but was revised down to $18 million after Gov. Terry McAuliffe released his proposed budget. That doesn’t include the first step of a long-term plan to overhaul RPS’ facilities, which could cost as much as $170 million in the next few years.
“The needs of the district don’t change,” Bedden said.
The mayor’s proposal drew mixed reaction from the public officials in attendance.
“Having a full, robust conversation on funding public schools is a good thing … I’m anxious to see the details of what the referendum would look like,” said Jeff Bourne, School Board chairman.
An exasperated Reva Trammell, who represents part of South Richmond on Council, said, “You don’t want to know what I think. How about we have a referendum on the mayor’s $500,000 security detail? Put that in writing.”
Chris Hilbert, vice president of council and a potential candidate in the city’s 2016 mayoral election, said he would not support a tax increase of any kind and neither would the people living in his district.
“I hope this [proposal] is not being used to pass the buck,” Hilbert said. “The voters put us here to make the decisions.”
Council president and mayoral candidate Michelle Mosby declined comment after the speech.