In his final State of the City speech, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray touted his record of righting the city’s finances, increasing the number of high-paying jobs and putting more police officers on the street.
In his eighth State of the City speech, the two-term mayor did not unveil any new initiatives or capital projects. Instead, Gray focused on ongoing initiatives, such as the renovation and restoration of the former Fayette County Courthouse on Main Street and bringing high-speed internet to all of Lexington.
He spoke Tuesday at a noon meeting of the Lexington Forum at the Hyatt Regency.
Gray announced in December he would not run for a third and final term as mayor. Instead, he will seek the Democratic nomination in the 6th Congressional District race.
When Gray was first elected in 2011, the city was facing a deficit and unemployment was heading past 9 percent, he said Tuesday. Seven years later, Lexington has had several years of surpluses and unemployment in Fayette County is hovering around 3.2 percent, lower than state and national averages, he said.
Nearly 20,000 new jobs have been created in Fayette County since 2011, he said, noting that the city created an incentive program in 2013 that gives companies money to keep or add high-paying jobs.
Gray also spent considerable time during his speech talking about crime and public safety. The city has been hiring additional police officers over the past several years and its sworn strength is now 630 officers, the highest in city history.
Still, homicides have remained high for the last two years. In 2016, there were 24 homicides, the highest since 2001. In 2017, that number inched up to 28 homicides, the highest ever, according to Lexington Police data.
Despite the record number of homicides, Gray claimed Lexington is “one of the safest cities in the country.”
“We’re thankful we don’t have problems like Chicago but we do face our own challenges,” he said. “And, we all agree, one loss is too many.”
Adding more police officers and concentrating on community policing are not the only answers. Nonprofits and programs that target gun violence are also key, he said.
“Clearly, it will take all of us, working together,” Gray said.
Several infrastructure projects are underway in Lexington, including the $22 million renovation of the former courthouse, which will become a restaurant, bar, event and office space in coming months.
“The courthouse is fully leased and on budget,” Gray said.
The city also is planning a more than $200 million renovation and expansion of the Lexington Convention Center. The city also is trying to raise private money to build the nearly 10-acre Town Branch Park, which would be adjacent to the new convention center.
Meanwhile, construction on the first phase of Town Branch Commons, a more than 2-mile trail that connects the Legacy and Town Branch trails and will go through downtown, is scheduled to begin later this year.
Gray also touted smaller improvements to the city’s parks system, including new splash parks and playgrounds.
“Our youth football program has more than doubled in size in just two years,” Gray said. “Youth football is a proud tradition in Lexington … we count 10 NFL players who got started on one of our parks football teams.”
In November, the city announced that MetroNet, an Evansville, Ind.-based company, has agreed to spend $70 million wiring the city for high-speed internet at gigabit speeds. The company also will bring much-needed competition to the Lexington cable television market, Gray has said.
Gray said people have stopped him on the street to say how excited they are that MetroNet is coming.
“One guy even rolled down his truck window as he passed by and said, ‘Hey mayor, I love that fast internet,” Gray said.
Gray said MetroNet plans to start building out its fiber optic network this week, but company officials have cautioned it could take as long as three years for the entire area inside the urban service boundary to be wired.
Gray made no mention of the city’s controversial decision to move two Confederate-era statues from the lawn of the former Fayette County Courthouse, a move that generated national headlines in August.
However, he praised the city’s willingness to work together without controversy.
“I hope they will take a lesson from Lexington, because we’ve been getting things done,” Gray said. “We’ve proven we know how to overcome challenges and come out ahead.”
Gray got a standing ovation after his 30-minute speech.
Councilwoman Jennifer Mossotti said there is much to celebrate in Lexington, but wished Gray had spent more time on issues affecting neighborhoods, such as parks, roads and other infrastructure projects.
Gray also failed to mention how the state’s underfunded pension system could affect the city’s finances in the fiscal year that starts July 1. Gray will give his final budget address in April.
At-Large Councilman Kevin Stinnett, who has announced he will run for mayor, said the state of the city speech was not the place to talk about next year’s budget.
“That’s really an issue for the next mayor,” Stinnett said.
One estimate released earlier this year showed the city’s pension payment to the state, which was $19.6 million this year, would jump by $10.3 million next year. If the city’s pension payment increases to $30 million that would be roughly 8 percent of the city’s $358 million general fund budget.
“That’s typically our discretionary spending,” Stinnett said.