How Roanoke's Proposed $355-Million Budget Came Together — And What Didn't Make the Cut

Sometimes called “a moral document,” a city’s budget may be its most important plan and one on which citizens can have a direct impact.

Roanoke's proposed $355-million budget includes funding on everything from schools and libraries to police and trash pickup. ROANOKE RAMBLER PHOTO ILLUSTRATION

Roanoke will spend $355 million over the next fiscal year — on everything from trash pickup to tree planting, after-school programs to firearm permitting.

While members of City Council provide input over several months, the proposed budget, presented last week, is largely hashed out by senior city leaders behind closed doors.

They decide what to fund — and what not to — based on the desires of Council and the community. There’s still a chance for residents to influence the final budget, city leaders say, before Council is set to adopt the spending plan on May 8.

Sometimes called “a moral document,” a city’s budget may be its most important plan and one on which citizens can have a direct impact.

A public hearing tomorrow (Thursday) at 7 p.m. will solicit residents’ views on the city’s recommended budget and proposed real estate tax rate. That hearing is being held in City Council chambers at the Noel C. Taylor Municipal Building (215 Church Ave. SW).

The bulk of the city’s revenue comes from real estate and other local taxes. Though the city hasn’t raised these rates, rising property values are projected to net an extra $10.3 million to city coffers. Overall, the budget — which runs from July through June 2024 — is $30.6 million higher than last year’s.

City Council will give their final input to city staff on May 1 before adopting the budget the following week.

Here we provide an overview of how the budget comes together — as well as an exclusive look (thanks to a public records request) on what didn’t make it into the proposed budget this year.

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'It's the city manager's budget'

The budget process begins in the fall, when City Council holds a retreat and decides what’s important to them.

Such broad priorities have not changed in recent years and include labels such as “education,” “community safety” and “livability.”

When tax revenue is projected to increase — as it has by 9.4 percent this year — city departments and outside agencies submit proposals called “supplementals” explaining new funding they would like. Departments include Parks and Recreation and the police department while agencies include the Mill Mountain Zoo and Berglund Civic Center.

Since a longstanding funding formula gives 40 percent of all local taxes to Roanoke City Public Schools, city departments compete for the remaining 60 percent. This year, that left $13.4 million in local tax revenue among other funding, such as state and federal grants.

Between December and mid-January, departments and agencies submitted 252 supplemental requests for that money. Of those, 187 were included in the proposed budget, according to Paul Workman, the city’s budget manager.

Decisions on what to fund are hashed out in the budget committee, a group of senior city staffers. This year’s budget lists members as City Manager Bob Cowell, Assistant City Managers Brent Robertson and Angie O’Brien, and Chris Chittum, then city manager apprentice and currently the city’s planning director. Other budget officials are also involved.

The group doesn’t include members of City Council, and meetings aren’t public.

In the spring, during the peak of budget season, the group meets as often as three times a week.

Last week, we reported on some of the city manager’s top priorities in his proposed budget. Those largely focus on boosting pay for police, firefighters and bringing up other employees to competitive salaries — to a total tune of $9.7 million.

So what didn’t make the cut?

Here are some of the requests for funding — which totaled more than $4.3 million — that were not included in the proposed budget, according to a spreadsheet from the city:

  • $368,340 by parks and recreation for “expanded staff necessary to operate the redeveloped Washington Park Pool,” which has an anticipated summer 2024 opening
  • $107,561 by the procurement department for a “Supplier Diversity Champion” who would boost the city’s contracts with women- and minority-owned businesses
  • $75,982 by facilities maintenance to fund a carpenter and trades worker, positions the department said “were given up (we thought temporarily)
    at the beginning of COVID”
  • $54,000 by the police department for “counseling and mentoring services for at-risk youth in the community”
  • $8,500 by the custodial department needed for cleaning supplies because of inflation
  • $1,500 by City Council to fund more “gifts and tokens of appreciation” for dignitaries
  • $600 by the sustainability office for branded clothing to wear at outreach events

The experience of the parks department last year illustrates how staff pay raises have eaten up most of Roanoke’s extra spending money recently.

“Nearly all of the supplemental budget requests for next year were denied,” 2022 meeting minutes from the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board say. “The reason for the denial is that the Manager’s focus is on compensation for the upcoming year.”

That’s much the case for 2023.

“For this year, it was like, ‘Please understand that compensation is going to be one of our top priorities so just be reasonable,’” Robertson said of the directives to departments.

Once the city manager presents his budget to City Council, it’s in their hands. City Council does not see the funding requests that Roanoke’s department and agencies submit.

“It’s the city manager’s budget until Council adopts it,” Robertson said. “It’s a subtle thing, but it is important in the development of it.”

The public does have a chance to impact the budget at this late stage, city staff said.

“I'm not sure there's anyone anywhere, any county administrator or city manager, that's been able to get his budget unscathed through the approval process,” Robertson said.

Of course, if City Council wants a program added to the budget, that means something must be cut elsewhere.

“If you want to fund more in the left hand, then something has to come out of the right hand,” said Amelia Merchant, director of management and budget, since at this stage the city’s balanced budget cannot end up higher than it was advertised to the public.

Equity and outcomes

For the last decade, since the arrival of former city manager Chris Morrill, Roanoke has used a framework called “budgeting for outcomes.”

That means the city focuses on community priorities — the “education” and “community safety” labels approved by Council — rather than funding departments for their own sake. The idea is also to use data to make sure programs are effective and that residents are getting the services they need.

More recently, under Cowell, Roanoke has adopted an equity lens to city spending.

One question departments seeking funding are asked: “How does this request serve to address a known disparity in our community or enhance or support equitable outcomes or initiatives?”

“Our community has many disparities – income, life expectancy, educational attainment, access to public services, etc.” the budget says. “To ensure we provide the most equitable services practical we must be aware of these disparities and intentional about addressing them.”

City leaders also use a scoring criteria to judge requests for funding. Requests rank high if they meet a state or federal mandate, for example. Programs that could bring in their own revenue are also looked upon favorably.

But city staff stress that scores alone do not ensure whether something gets funded.

“It is a very objective process, it’s got a lot of system and process to it,” Robertson said. “You know, it does get to a point where the subjective decision-making has to happen, you know, based on the qualitative things you've heard, like strategy and desires from Council and the community and things like that.”

Staff involved in the budget process professed a seriousness about helping the city be a good stewards of residents’ tax dollars.

“I go back to growing up and driving around the county and the city and not paying attention to the fact that the grass got moved, the trash got picked up,” Merchant said. “Things happen, and they happen because there are city employees who are doing these things every single day. And it costs in order for them to do those things. … So without taxes and fees, we cannot deliver the programs and services that seem taken for granted.”

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