Gray's budget challenge also opportunity

Tight finances also offer opportunity

December 28, 2010 

Lexington Mayor-Elect Jim Gray shown in his company, Gray Construction, on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2010 in Lexington, Ky. Jim Gray is chairman and CEO of Gray Construction. A replica of the 1948 Ford pickup his father, James Norris Gray, used when James Norris Gray founded the company in 1960 is in background. Photo by David Perry | Staff


The difficult fiscal challenges awaiting Jim Gray when he becomes Lexington's mayor next week also create some opportunities.

Gray inherits a general-fund budget that was balanced by raiding the city's rainy-day fund and tapping other one-time sources such as selling city-owned real estate.

This year's $274 million spending plan represented a reduction of almost 3 percent from the prior year. Even with those cuts, the current budget depends on at least $10 million from non-recurring sources, meaning that revenue won't be available when Gray puts together his first city budget.

Further tightening the screws is a $7.2 million anticipated shortfall in the budget for city employees' health insurance.

Not a pretty picture.

The budget crises will require Gray and his team to drill down into every aspect of the government — searching for what works, what doesn't, what's essential, what's dispensable and what should be done differently.

Armed with this knowledge, the new administration will have an opportunity to reshape the government to make it more efficient and effective. Such change is controversial and painful. But Gray, who has promised zero-based budgeting, will never have a better opportunity to put the government on a new, albeit stripped down, foundation.

The economic doldrums that have hammered cities and states will inevitably crimp Gray's ambitions for Lexington. But he can't let the sour economy distract him from his big-picture agenda.

Gray will be the first mayor who has really committed to selling Lexington to a national market. And he's already begun. As mayor-elect, he racked up the kind of publicity you can't buy in The New York Times when he dropped in on Mayor Michael Bloomberg to check out his city hall nerve center.

Gray was elected, at least in part, on a promise that he has the skills to move Lexington's economy to a higher level. With banks and corporations holding tight to their cash, this is a tough time to make good on that promise.

Nonetheless, to avoid disappointing his supporters, Gray will have to campaign for jobs for Lexington as effectively as he campaigned for the office he's about to assume.

And, though it may not provide shovel-ready photo-ops, if he can produce a city government in which every department is humming with creative solutions, Lexington will be more open and appealing to the kind of investment that creates jobs and a higher quality of life for all.

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