Herald-Leader Editorial

Gray's hand steady on budget

Utility fee increase merits scrutiny

April 12, 2013 

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray introduced his budget to council members and a standing room only Council Chambers in Lexington, Ky., on April 9, 2013. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff

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In the broadest strokes, the budget Mayor Jim Gray presented Tuesday reinforces the themes that have emerged in the two years of his administration.

There are indications of investing not only in greater efficiency in how government does its work but also in the community, both it's people and its amenities.

There's clearly a sharp pencil aimed at controlling ongoing expenses that Gray must have developed during his career in private business.

There's also a continued emphasis on matching up costs more closely with services, so that things like pension contributions, health and property insurance are allocated to divisions rather than lumped into one huge budget line.

That's important because it provides a much truer picture of what it costs to provide a particular service.

Perhaps the biggest thing about this budget is what it doesn't contain. There are no new bonds to bail out the fire and police pension system. That's thanks to the deal reached in January, after months of hard negotiations, to salvage the system.

The city has a long haul ahead on pensions, with a commitment to put $11 million annually into the pension fund for 30 years to close the funding gap in addition to maintaining current contributions and paying off the $137 million in pension bonds accumulated in recent years.

But there's no new pension debt and that's a good thing because it provides a little breathing room to issue bonds to meet other needs in the city. That, along with expectations of a slightly improving economy, allowed Gray to propose raising the total budget this year by 2.7 percent to almost $300 million.

New items include hiring firefighters and jail workers and purchasing better equipment for both police and fire. The proposal also includes money to push forward planning for a new senior center and the Rupp Area project as well as to build new playing fields in Shilito Park.

It continues the $1 million annual funding for the Purchase of Development Rights program that now protects over 25,000 acres of Fayette County farmland from development.

The only new revenue measure Gray's proposing is adding 1 percent to the franchise fee paid by utilities. The estimated $2.5 to $4 million this would raise would be spent on streetlights, Gray said. The fee, of course, will be passed on directly to utility customers and the council will have to question closely whether the tradeoff is worth it, or if other money could be reallocated to avoid the fee.

One thing the council should respect in the mayor's budget are the modest increases he recommends to provide social services in the community. These include GED training, child care, youth activities, camps for children with mental and physical disabilities and support for teenage mothers.

This is a humane and reasonable response to the needs in our community that are not being addressed by flagging state and federal funding.

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