Council passes budget, mayor promises to use line-item veto

bfortune@herald-leader.comJune 24, 2011 

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray

The Urban County Council approved a city budget for the upcoming fiscal year that includes taking on $400,000 in new debt, and Mayor Jim Gray said almost immediately that he would exercise his veto power to cut certain expenses in the budget.

Gray said late Thursday that starting "tonight" he was going to examine the 2012 budget "line item by line item with a focus on what's right for the taxpayer, with a focus on fiscal responsibility."

The mayor has authority to examine the budget over the next 10 days — starting Friday — to exercise his veto power. The council can override mayoral vetoes with nine votes.

The vote in favor of passing the budget was 11 to 4. Vice Mayor Linda Gorton and council members KC Crosbie, Diane Lawless and Doug Martin voted against passage.

After the meeting, Martin said the council "has not yet come to the reality that the shortfall in our police and firemen's pension fund, and our medical benefits are increasing by about $40 million a year."

He said the city can't afford the benefits it is committed to paying now much less hiring a new class of 25 police officers and paying their benefits. He called that "shortsighted."

Lawless cast a "no" vote because, while there are "some good and worthwhile projects in the budget, we cannot afford them now," she said. The council has not had the political will to stop the out-of-control spending, "and we are broke," she said.

Crosbie said she supported the mayor's vision of cost savings for government. "We can't continue to spend money we just don't have," she said.

Crosbie and Gorton cast the only two votes against the city's 2011 budget.

Gorton expressed concern Thursday about the council's willingness to bond $400,000 for new projects when the city's bond rating was down-graded last year for borrowing too much, considering how much cash it had in the bank.

Part of that $400,000 would go to build new lacrosse fields at Shillito Park for $75,000 and disc golf courses at Coldstream and Jacobson parks for $150,000.

Gorton asked why community organizations did not raise money to build those fields and golf courses in city parks. She pointed out that baseball supporters raised money for baseball fields, Lexington Youth Soccer Association raised money to build soccer fields and Friends of the Dog Park contributed money for dog parks.

The $273 million General Fund budget Gray presented in April called for reducing recurring expenses, mainly by laying off 28 city employees, outsourcing security at the Government Center and the Phoenix Building, and not taking on more debt.

The council's budget added back the 11 security officers and several public information employees, plus a police recruiting class of 25 officers.

The council also restored $300,000 in funding for partner agencies such as the Hope Center, and added back $363,000 in supplemental salaries for the city's 59 computer services employees.

Gray said he felt strongly about differences between the belt-tightening measures he proposed and the spending measures proposed by the council. He will look at the entire budget, "and I'm not going to speculate right now" on cuts.

However, he has already said he did not agree with taking on $400,000 more debt, especially for projects like Frisbee golf. "I don't think this is the right time to spend taxpayer money on projects like Frisbee golf," he said.

"What this is about is restoring our city to financial responsibility," he said, calling the 2012 spending plan "the toughest budget in 37 years of merged government."

"We've got to be just like the private sector," Gray said. "We've got to be responsible. We've got to live within our means."

Continuing to talk to council members "will be first priority," Gray said. The mayor anticipates calling a special council meeting before the start of the Fourth of July holiday to talk about his line-item vetoes.

Reach Beverly Fortune at (859) 231-3251 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3251.

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