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Lexington Mayor Unveils Budget Plan
Lexington’s Mayor calls it a ‘conservative budget’. Jim Gray also says the proposal, that would spend nearly 300-million dollars, signifies ‘good business.’ The Mayor’s budget proposal reflects a two-point-seven percent increase in spending. A major difference in this budget plan over previous years is limited borrowing. Mayor Gray says it’s no longer burdened with major ticket items. “We are on solid ground today because of the reforms we have made in the last two and a half years; pension reform, health insurance reform, collective bargaining,” said Gray.
For a year, the city has provided health care to its workers in a new way. It operates a clinic and pharmacy for employees and retirees…saving over ten million dollars a year. Acting Budget Director Melissa Lueker says it’s been well accepted.
“Our pharmacist, actually steward , she says on a daily basis when employees and dependents come in to pick up prescriptions, they’re asking are people using this, are people using this, cause they want it to stay a benefit,” said Lueker.
While cutting costs helps, Lexington still faces a potential shortfall in revenue this year amounting to six million dollars. It’s red ink that could complicate the work of the city’s budget builders. With no easy fix apparent, Finance Commissioner Bill Omara argues slow and steady will win this race.
“Instead of a quick peak to go back to the way we were, this is a very slow build out and so this budget reflects that slow year over year trend we hope to see,” added Omara.
Despite the revenue shortfall, Mayor Gray does not call for any broad based tax increases. He is proposing a one percent increase in the franchise fees levied by the city on its utilities…amounting to perhaps four million dollars. That tax hike will likely be considered by council members before they vote on a new budget.
Safe Housing and code enforcement remain a priority. The mayor suggests reorganizing the Department of Planning to streamline the permitting process for building and signage. Gray also wants to improve the efficiency of Lexington’s code enforcement officers. Planning Commissioner Derek Paulsen says it could allow the city to quickly address problems created by poorly maintained homes….
“Can we monitor them, can we get better information about where they are, respond to them quicker, respond to them more effectively. We still have a lot of that still goes through other divisions like the division of law, but I think what we will see is we can coordinate better through code enforcement as effectively as we can between code enforcement, building inspection and historic preservation on some of those different properties,” said Paulsen.
One historic property targeted for major renovation is the Kentucky Theater in downtown Lexington. The budget proposal invests 250 thousand dollars in city funds with another quarter million dollars collected from private donors. Former Vice Mayor Isabel Yates heads that campaign.
“We have already raised the money for the digital projector, but now we need to raise the money for the seats because they have to be replaced. And we’re going to repaint and do some more lighting. There’s a lot of renovations that need to be done. But, we’re on the road. That’s the good news,” explained Yates.
Yates hopes for a grand reopening at the Kentucky Theater in the fall of 2014. And nearby, at the Lyric Theater, the mayor’s plan increases annual funding for the Lyric to 160 thousand dollars.
120 thousand dollars are set aside for a city office that would coordinate government services for the homeless. Council member Steve Kay, who co-chaired the homelessness task force that proposed the office’s creation, says the work is just beginning.
“In the best of all possible worlds, within the next three to six months, we’ll develop a more complex plan, more detailed plan for the kinds of activities that we need to be engaged in and we will identify funding for those activities,” said Kay.
Gray’s budget also funds 25 new firefighters, increases the salaries of civil service employees by two percent. There's money to go toward a new senior citizens center, and public safety equipment improvements.
This year’s budget proposal belongs solely to Lexington’s mayor…with little initial input from the council. With new personnel serving as the mayor’s finance and budget directors, Vice Mayor Linda Gorton says there was little chance for council members to participate early-on in the budget writing process.
“It was different last year, we had a lot more input because we were able to sit down at the table together at the retreat. I think it was helpful. It was just not practical this year,” added Gorton.
However, now council will have its chance. Over the next few weeks its committees will review those proposals, probably make changes and approve a final spending plan before the new fiscal year begins on July 1st.