Lexington mayor supports creating office to coordinate services for the homeless

jkegley@herald-leader.comFebruary 19, 2013 

Carrie Berend, left, volunteer coordinator for the Catholic Action Center, and Street Voice Council chairwoman Ellis Boatley looked for people without shelter along railroad tracks behind the Catalina Motel during the 2013 Lexington Homeless Count on Jan. 31.

BRIANA SCROGGINS — Herald-Leader Buy Photo

Mayor Jim Gray said Tuesday he supports the creation of an office to coordinate services to the city's homeless population, but questions about how the office and other services would be financed remained unanswered.

Gray spoke at a meeting of the Urban County Council's Budget and Finance Committee. He told council members he would include the new office in his proposed budget for fiscal 2014.

The mayor's Commission on Homelessness recently recommended creating the office to help reduce the city's growing homeless population. The commission recommended paying for it by increasing the fee that the city levies on insurance premiums, excluding health insurance.

The suggested 1 percent increase would raise about $4 million annually in dedicated funding for homeless services. Half of that money would pay for the new office, and the other half would go toward creating affordable housing for sale or for rent.

Gray stopped short of addressing the possibility of a tax increase at Tuesday's meeting. He said that once the proposed office was up and running, it would develop a plan for affordable housing initiatives.

"In my view, the plan comes first ... before we make long-term decisions about public investment," he said.

Most of the dozens of people who packed the Urban County Council chambers Tuesday indicated that they think the city should help provide affordable housing for the homeless and near-homeless, even if it requires a tax increase. Those in favor included several pastors, directors from service organizations including Habitat for Humanity and the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Shelter, and businessman Mike Scanlon.

Some Lexington landlords opposed an increase. They said that $15 million to $20 million in federal grants and other funding currently received by homeless shelters and services annually has done little to reduce the number of homeless people in Lexington.

Landlord Ike Lawrence questioned what good an additional $4 million would do.

"There is a way to fix homelessness ... but we don't think that it's this way, with another tax," he said.

After Lawrence's comments, the Rev. Adam Jones, chairman of the BUILD faith-based affordable housing group, asked everyone in the room who supported the creation of an affordable housing trust fund and a tax increase to stand up. The majority of those in the room stood.

"The 1 percent insurance premium tax ... is an investment to make our city livable for everyone," he said.

The Budget and Finance Committee will continue researching the possibility of the tax increase, council members said.

Josh Kegley: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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