This is a high-level post covering the overview of my platform. It focuses on why we must treat Richmond as an ecosystem, and how we can improve and grow our community through a multitude of short-term and long-term programs.
My platform is centered on Unity Through Community. Now more than ever we should strive to create a healthy, thriving, vibrant, accessible, and inclusive community. Whichever mayoral candidate you decide to support, I ask that you vote for the platform that best reflects the community you want to see and be a part of.
The platform described below is the result of careful and critical thinking, and experience from holding different roles throughout Richmond: from working as City Economist, to working in economic development, to starting a non-profit that worked directly with the City's Workforce Development program, to being the CFO of a local small business and restaurant. The takeaway here is that I have seen the interactions of these seemingly disjoint parts, can view Richmond as an ecosystem, and can understand which areas to focus on when to maximize our growth and inclusivity.
Another important point is that this platform is reflective of the entire four-year term. The platform covers both what to do, and when to do it. For instance, we cannot build a new school or eliminate food deserts overnight. But in the short-term we can implement beneficial after-school programs and empower our youth with knowledge and skills to grow their own food, as we work toward the long-term goals.
So where do we start? It's important to think of Richmond as an ecosystem, because that is how we can create perpetual growth for our community. Although we can start anywhere in the circular flow, I find it easiest to start with talent development and retention.
Talent Development & Retention
If we look at the Richmond region, there are many post-secondary institutions, such as University of Richmond, VCU, and VUU. If we expand that a bit we encounter VSU and Randolph-Macon, and we cannot forget our community colleges like J. Sargeant Reynolds or John Tyler either.
These institutions develop and graduate talent. We should work to retain that talent by offering employers incentives for hiring local, as well as expanding city amenities for those who graduate and stay – things like expanded transportation options (bicycles and bus), expanded parks, and more community rec centers and gardens.
This is important, because according to the 2005 study, The Young and Restless in a Knowledge Economy, "one of the strongest predictors of income growth in metro areas over the past decade is the level of education of the local population". The study also found that entrepreneurship is highest among 25 to 34 year-olds, and importantly, the older someone gets the less likely they are to move across state lines.
Developing and retaining our local talent is important, but we must also ensure we have a well-performing public school system that prepares our youth for that next chapter – whether that be college, a trade school, or opening their own business, so they can then bring that success back to their community, and wealth back to their family.
Economic & Community Development
If we accept the premise that the older a person gets, the less likely they are to move, then we should work toward creating healthy, thriving, vibrant, accessible, and inclusive communities. For too long "economic development" has been chasing big deals for bullet points on a politician's resume. These deals often fail, and leave taxpayers holding the bag – for example, where are the 200 restaurant jobs promised by Stone Brewing?
Instead, we should focus on community development in our neighborhoods. You may recall the plan to replace Dove Court with mixed-income housing and also redo the elementary school nearby, Overby-Sheppard. At the time, the neighborhood moved forward, but the school was paused.
We must ask, who will move to the community if the neighborhood is safe, but the school is below par? And who will move to the community if the school is new, but people feel unsafe in the neighborhood? For too long we've treated economic development and our school system as separate and distinct, but I firmly believe they go hand-in-hand.
Mixed-income housing is not one-size-fits-all. If we as a community decide to go that route, I will ensure everyone who receives public housing or assistance will be guaranteed to continue to receive that benefit and not be displaced. Forcibly moving people around does not solve the root issue. Creating mixed-income neighborhoods can help eliminate food deserts and concentrated centers of poverty, which are correlated with higher crime rates. No one should have to worry about where their next meal will come from, or consistently have to pay meals tax because there is a food desert in their neighborhood.
Lastly, we should consider incentivizing or requiring new businesses in a neighborhood to hire from within that neighborhood, and have a staff reflective of that neighborhood.
Funding Education & Schools
Engaging in community development is just one side of this coin, we must dually improve the our public schools. Even if we develop and retain talent, if that talent wants to start a family, they'll likely move to one of the surrounding counties because of the current state of Richmond Public Schools.
We should work to prevent that outcome, because with flight goes potential tax revenue the city could earn – visiting grandchildren can bring hotel lodging tax, vehicle rental tax, admissions tax, and other non-obvious areas. Families tend to have multiple vehicles, so that's yet another area of additional tax revenue.
Not only should we fix decrepit buildings, but we should hire more teachers reflective of the community, and empower those teachers to teach in ways that best promote learning in their classroom. We should take a student-centric approach and solve for the needs of that specific body. As an educator myself, I know that even with the same subject, needs can vary wildly from class-to-class.
Lastly, we should focus on teaching critical thinking and problem-solving as a skillset, engage in aptitude testing, and align those aptitudes with effective learning styles and environments. I will work directly with the School Board and Superintendent Kamras to achieve these goals.
Both community development and improving schools takes time, and reflect more long-term goals. In the short-term, we can create more after-school programs to give youth an outlet and help inspire and encourage creativity. Instead of criminalizing our youth who create their own fun because their neighborhood has little-to-no amenities, let's break that cycle with innovative and useful after-school programs.
For example, RPD has a mounted unit (horses). The mounted unit is typically used for crowd control during riots. Instead of deploying horses for that end (which, by the way, I haven't seen them at the protests once), why not create an after-school equestrian program, and give youth an opportunity they might otherwise not have?
Take the Washington Football Team training camp as another example. As I said when I was City Economist, that deal made zero sense, and it continues to not perform as forecast. One program I'm proposing is the "Field to Farm" program: why not turn that field into a farm, and create either an after-school program or a 7th period agriculture class, where we empower our youth with the knowledge to grow their own food? Let them take that produce home, or sell it to local restaurants, who can then advertise using locally grown produce. This is also a short-term solution of knowledge and empowerment as we work toward the long-term goal of eliminating food deserts.
We must question the fundamental nature of policing in our community. This starts with recognizing and accepting the fact that when the police are called, they are treating a symptom, not the cause. I recently spoke to the Finance & Economic Development Standing Committee making many of these points here. We must deconstruct the police in order to reconstruct our community.
For instance, instead of criminalizing a 14-year old for selling drugs and ruining their future, why not send them to an entrepreneur class (just like driving school for speeding tickets), and channel that energy and drive in a positive way? That is how we can reconstruct our community, spur innovation, and create wealth for minority and marginalized groups that are often the targets of policing.
Let me be clear: I fully support the creation of a civilian review board with subpoena power, the creation of a 'Marcus Alert' system, ending qualified immunity, and imposing mandatory implicit bias testing of all current and potential officers (link).
On page 261 of the current adopted budget (link), the police are set to receive nearly $100MM in funding for FY2021. That comes in at a per capita cost of $431, one of, if not the highest in the city. By comparison, Parks, Rec, & Community facilities has a budget of $18MM at a per capita cost of $118 (page 215).
I am proposing moving a stacking 12.5% from the RPD budget each year (for a total of 50% reduction by the fourth year) and putting that money directly into schools, parks, and community, health, and social services. If split evenly, that would give each of those three groups an additional $41MM in funding over the four year period.
In economics, you gain from specialization and a division of labor. The fact is, we ask our officers to do far too much, they are expected to be 'jacks of all trade, master of none'. Officers end up frustrated, and residents don't receive specialized help. Do we need to call the police if we get in a fender-bender? If anything we should call EMS. Do we need to dispatch the police to calls where someone in the house refuses to turn down the TV? Or have officers deal with truancy calls by parents? By drastically narrowing the mission and focus of the police (say, to armed robbery and violent crime), we can divert the remaining funds to help fix the root, which over time will actually lower crime and improve community safety.
Funding Health & Social Services
If we want our community to have a prosperous and successful future, we must better fund health and social services. Part of this can be creating or adding to a 'Mental Health Crisis Rapid Response Team', where trained professionals intervene and the police remain staged in the event of violence, but out-of-sight and off-premise.
We must also fund better community health services and access to social services and programs. Having more specialists and dietitians employed by the city and in neighborhoods as a resource is one way. Providing low-to-no cost therapy and counseling services is another. We should strive to create and employ a harm reduction framework for our residents. Again, over the long-term, we can divert funds from RPD which treat the symptom, and instead invest in creating paths of opportunity and solving the root.
Funding Parks, Rec, & Sustainability
Providing quality amenities to our neighborhoods is another platform focus. This includes improving parks, rec, and community facilities, as well as creating a better local environment through focusing on sustainability. As a former member of the Mayor's Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Commission, I firmly believe we should also drastically increase the amount of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure to improve accessibility throughout our community.
If we divert funding from the current model of policing into these facilities, they will strengthen our community and the relationships within neighborhoods. Instead of selling surplus RRHA to developers who will then charge a premium for rent, contribute to gentrification, and continue the cycle of displacing people, why not convert those spaces into parks which offer both youth and adults accessible amenities? Creating more rec centers will also provide more opportunities for after-school programs, and again, increase accessibility in our neighborhoods.
Sustainability is also extremely important. We must create a community with a focus on bequest value for future generations. By choosing to convert spaces to parks and adding trees, we can create a natural system to help mitigate stormwater, rather than adding to the concrete jungle which perpetuates flooding issues in heavy rain. We should also look at ways to fix the CSO (combined sewer overflow) system, mitigate microplastics, and educate people to first reduce, then reuse, and then as a last resort, recycle.
City Services Reenvisioned
We should also reenvision our city services and how they create or add value to our community. For instance, instead of having people (who may have limited transportation options and mobility) come to City Hall and face a parking ticket just to pay their utility bill, why not create a City Hall to Go? This was something I proposed back in 2014 (link), and an idea I still firmly believe in.
The City Hall to Go could accept utility payments, allow for the application of business licenses, provide library cards, and so on. The linked post above shows the "menu" of services the City of Boston provides with its version of this. The vehicle would go to different neighborhoods on a recurring basis, with the schedule posted online, and leave days open for attending special events.
Another aspect of reenvisioning city services is improving efficiency and eliminating redundant business processes. To that end, I am committed to setting aside $40,000 of the mayoral salary to create an annual fund which rewards whistleblowers for reporting fraud, waste, and abuse. The reward amount is directly proportional to the amount recovered. As an economist, I recognize incentives work.
I am also proposing the creation of the "Audit it All" program, where we audit every city department on a preset schedule and frequency. I spoke about many of the shortcomings and failures of the finance department to City Council in 2014 (link), and some of these issues continue to persist today.
Leveraging Our Data as an Asset
Too often people do not think of data as an asset. Simply speaking, data are information, and our goal with captured data is that it aligns with facts about the world. We can then use those data to create better informed decisions and improve our community.
Here's an example. As part of the City Hall to Go, I mentioned accepting business license applications. What if we revised the business license application to have specific boxes for people to check if they are a small-, women-, or minority-owned business, and where they can opt-in to a city directory?
Then, if you want to support a black-owned business, you go to the city's website, and open the directory which looks similar to Google Maps. You enter your address, check the type of business you want to support, and the type of goods or services you seek. The results are multiple pins that show you businesses which fit this criteria; for example, the black-owned restaurants near you. But we can never get there if we don't capture those data to begin with.
Oh and guess what? Now that we have those data from our local entrepreneurs, why not create a 'Big Brother, Big Sister' after-school program that connects our youth with these entrepreneurs through a mentorship program?
These are just some of the ways we can use our data as an asset to create value. We should also redevelop the City of Richmond website, with accessibility at the core.
This post is quite long, and a special congratulations if you've made it this far! For us to have community success and build community wealth and equity, we must look at Richmond as an ecosystem. We simply cannot focus on one area, or solely rely on a single short-term or long-term solution.
I hope this helps illustrate and communicate some of my platform, and how we can create a more healthy, thriving, vibrant, accessible, and inclusive community for all. The more we work toward achieving that, the more increased revenue we'll see from city taxes, which can then go back to creating or improving the programs described above. That's how we get our ecosystem to become a perpetual growth machine.
I will be making additional posts in the coming weeks diving into even more details and proposals of these areas. Thank you for your support, and together, we can create unity through community.