PETERSBURG, Va. — The hometown girl who forced this city to confront its epic budgetary crisis has lost her job as interim city manager — apparently.
Like much in the beleaguered city government, Dironna Moore Belton’s hold on the job she coveted is a bit confusing. Petersburg Mayor W. Howard Myers sent Belton a letter Tuesday informing her that she was being sent back to the transit agency where she was working in March when the City Council tapped her for the interim city manager job. But the demotion took some other council members by surprise.
“I received three or four texts from council members saying they didn’t know about it, so I don’t know what they’re doing,” Belton said Tuesday afternoon.
Belton was the one who began probing city funding gaps and worked with advisers to uncover a shortfall of about $19 million that pitched the community to the edge of insolvency and caught the attention of Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). Last month, she led the council to adopt drastic cuts to stave off default and avoid a shutdown of all city services. Petersburg is the only locality in Virginia with a junk-status credit rating.
At least one council member contested the mayor’s dismissal of Belton, noting that the body had never voted on removing her and contending that the mayor had no authority to act on his own.
“How he did that, I don’t know,” council member Treska Wilson-Smith said.
Myers did not respond to an email or a phone message left with the city clerk. His letter to Belton, obtained by The Washington Post, thanked her for her “services and contribution to the city during this time of transition.” But it noted that she will see a reduction in salary and benefits, and instructed her to surrender her city car, cellphone, iPad and City Hall access card.
Belton, 38, grew up in Petersburg and had dreamed of one day running the city. She got the chance when the previous city manager was fired over problems with the water billing system and questions about the budget.
Once in office, Belton took the unusual step of asking the state’s finance secretary to look at the city’s financial mess. He found that the city had a gap between revenue and expenses, had spent all its reserves and had been papering over deficits with short-term borrowing. Another outside consultant drew up a plan of drastic steps — slashing school funding, cutting city pay, closing museums, raising taxes and fees — to get the city in position to make payroll and avoid default.
Belton shepherded that plan through council last month as she was applying for the full-time city manager job.
Myers seemed set on hiring someone else, however, and last week he and three other council members voted to bring in the Robert Bobb Group to devise a new rescue plan. The firm is led by the former D.C. city administrator, who also served as emergency financial manager for Detroit’s public schools.
Other council members balked at the estimated $300,000 cost of hiring Bobb’s firm, and contend that the vote violated city procedure. Nonetheless, the Bobb Group took over operations Tuesday.