After Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration initially denied City Auditor Umesh Dalal the ability to review city tax-collection efforts, the two parties reached an agreement last Tuesday, although it is unclear if they are on the same page about what is being audited.
The decision came after a tense debate during a City Council meeting the previous week when Director of Finance for the City of Richmond John Wack said he and his superiors did not see a need for a financial audit.
In contrast, Dalal said the auditor’s office would receive all the information they requested, but a statement released by Stoney’s press secretary Jim Nolan suggested otherwise.
“The yet-to-be agreed upon scope will define what data will be turned over,” Nolan said. “The mayor and Council President (Chris) Hilbert want the departments to come together to find a solution toward our common goal — identifying the best processes for the Revenue Administration Unit to collect the outstanding taxes owed to the city. They hope this meeting is a step toward that important objective.”
At the time of the meeting, the city was owed $52.8 million in delinquent taxes, with a large portion of that sum owed on property taxes. When Stoney’s Senior Policy Advisor for Innovation Jon Baliles was campaigning for mayor, he said if elected he would utilize delinquent property tax collection as method of filling holes in the city’s overdrawn budget. Stoney also cited this method during several public debates as a way of preventing a rise in taxes.
In a statement, Nolan said the mayor was committed to transparency which is why he hired VCU’s Performance Management Group to conduct a review of City Hall. Nolan also said that if Stoney does not find the results of the performance review to be satisfactory they will welcome the input of the city auditor.
According to the director of VCU’s Performance Management Group James Burke, what his group and the auditor’s office do are very different, though.
“We’re not auditors and if we were asked to do a performance audit in that way we would not. That is out of our expertise,” Burke said. “We are experts at looking at organizations looking for efficiencies and focusing on alignment, what needs to happen to make the organization more effective.”
Burke acknowledged there were some similarities between what his group and what the auditor’s office does, but reiterated the nuanced specificity of an auditor’s report.
“There are some ways in which they address some general issues some overall concerns,” Burke said. “The auditor’s reports are much more detailed – much more involved in the fine points that are different from this.”
Dalal’s proposed review would focus on the technical side of tax collection, data and administrative processes, not on the efficiency of each City Hall department, which is what VCU will do.
Kim Gray was one of six City Council members to vocalize support of Delal’s audit under the banner of transparency.
“As a function of good government and transparency and accountability we have to audit our books,” Gray said. “It’s critical for not only making sure that we’re doing the right things with our public dollars but to insure that the public interest is being met.”
Gray, like many of the other members of the City Council, is unsure why the mayor’s administration has been so hesitant to allow the audit.
“What surprised me most is we have a new mayor and any audit that is performed that has negative findings is not a reflection on his work or his efforts,” Gray said. “So, I think now would be the time to put all of our issues out there and try and make a difference.”
Tyler Hammel, Contributing Writer