With all the attention focused on the race for Lexington mayor, it's easy to forget that the city also will choose a new vice mayor in two weeks.
In contrast to the artillery fire that has defined the mayor's race, the contest among the six candidates competing for three at-large council seats has been low-key and cordial.
The top vote-getter among the six will become the new vice mayor — replacing Jim Gray, who is trying to unseat Mayor Jim Newberry.
The half-dozen candidates hold a range of views on key issues, including managing tight city revenues, funding farmland preservation, crafting design guidelines for downtown and deciding whether to expand the city's boundary for new development.
The race features familiar names, including two incumbents — Chuck Ellinger II and Linda Gorton — and former First District Councilman George Brown Jr.
The three candidates without council experience aren't exactly strangers. They are former United Way of the Bluegrass President Kathy Plomin, pubic policy consultant Steve Kay, who has experience on several city boards, and Don Pratt, a retired grocery store owner who has previously run for council and Congress.
Half of the group will join the council, and one of them will become its new leader.
Brown, a contract supply chain coordinator at the University of Kentucky, served six terms on council representing District 1. He is making his second run at an at-large council seat. In 2006, he placed fifth.
Ellinger, an attorney, is seeking his third term as a council-at-large member. His father, Chuck Ellinger, served 12 years as an at-large candidate and ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1998 against Pam Miller.
Gorton is the longest-serving member on council. A registered nurse working for a Lexington physician, Gorton served eight years as the District 4 councilwoman and is seeking her second term as a council-at-large member.
Kay has never held elected office but has run for an at-large seat twice before. He has experience with city government, serving as vice chairman of the Urban County Planning Commission and on the board of LexTran. His private consulting business, Roberts & Kay Inc., focuses on organizational development and public policy and has done work for the city.
Plomin served 10 years as president of United Way of the Bluegrass, leaving the job abruptly in April 2009 with no explanation.
Plomin said in an interview last month that she had always planned to step down in 2010, but moved up her departure because of "some health issues — anxiety, stress."
"The United Way is very intense," she said. "We operate in nine counties with 85 partner agencies. And we were facing cutbacks."
Don Pratt has not held elected office but ran twice for Congress and three times for council representative in the 3rd District. Pratt has been a foster parent to more than 50 children and owned Woodland Grocery before closing it and retiring.
With revenues stagnant, the Urban County Council will be limited in new projects and will have to focus on watching every penny it spends. To balance the city's 2011 budget, council voted to dip into the city's $14 million rainy-day fund to the tune of $5 million and sell approximately $4 million in unneeded property.
Kay said dipping into the rainy-day fund makes sense. "It's meant to be there as a backstop, but you have to think about ways to make it up. We've taken a small dip, but we are still a growing community," he said.
The city's challenge for the next four years "is to figure out how to use the money we have well," particularly funding basic city services, Kay said.
The incumbents, Ellinger and Gorton, have a more pessimistic outlook on the city's financial straits.
Gorton voted against the 2011 budget "for the first time since I've been on council" because she opposed tapping into the rainy-day fund. It should be used "for real emergencies," she said. "What if we have another ice storm?" Council agreed with Gorton's motion not to make the rainy-day withdrawal until Jan. 1, 2011, to see whether city revenues improve in December.
Ellinger voted for the budget but said, "It's not the kind of budget I feel comfortable with. The issue that concerns me (is), the economy doesn't look like it's going to turn around anytime soon."
He and Brown both indicated a willingness to explore a dedicated fee for public safety to ease some of the financial strain that fully funding the police and fire pension fund is putting on the city.
Rainy-day funds should be used as a "last resort," Plomin said. Future budget crises would be better handled if council members worked together to find solutions.
Pratt said many of his ideas are out of the mainstream, such as legalizing medical marijuana and allowing farmers to grow hemp, both of which could bring in revenue. "Obviously, I think out of the box," he says.
Design standards for downtown
Controversial downtown projects such as CentrePointe and a proposed CVS pharmacy on Main Street have led some to call for the city to adopt downtown design guidelines governing new construction.
Putting design standards in place guarantees that what's built is high-quality and architecturally compatible with its surroundings, proponents say.
Ellinger, Gorton and Kay line up in favor of guidelines. "They will be a positive step in maintaining the city's architectural continuity," Ellinger said.
Gorton likes to quote Mayor Joe Riley of Charleston, S.C., who has said, "What's the cost to ugly?"
"There is a cost. Other places have guidelines, and they end up with beautiful cities," Gorton said.
Pratt and Kay both favor having the city look at ways to give more protection for downtown historic buildings, making it harder to tear them down.
Brown and Plomin expressed conditional support for design guidelines, saying they are in favor only if guidelines are not mandatory.
Growth and development
Every five years, the government reviews its comprehensive plan, which governs land use in Fayette County, and 2011 is next in that cycle. Council approves goals and objectives set by the Planning Commission, and a key question will be whether to expand the Urban Service Boundary, an imaginary line around the city that separates rural areas from urban-style development.
Going hand-in-hand is Lexington's Purchase of Development Rights program, which buys up the development rights of significant tracts of farmland to preserve Lexington's signature landscape.
Kay, Gorton, Ellinger and Plomin all favor holding the present Urban Service Boundary, not allowing development into Fayette County farmland. They also come down on the side of the PDR program. For fiscal year 2011, the city put $2 million in its budget and will receive a match of $2 million in federal funds to buy development rights on selected farms.
Even in these cash-strapped times, Ellinger said, PDR is a "good investment in the future from any number of angles, including quality of life and economic development. Our forefathers were smart by establishing the Urban Service Boundary and setting up PDR."
"We have to protect our brand and what makes us unique," he said. "The World Equestrian Games were here not just because we have another shopping center, but because of this green area that wraps around Lexington."
Pratt is not a proponent of PDR, but he is not in favor of expanding the urban boundary. "I am for maintaining the USB where it is and increasing density with infill," he said.
If there is no expansion, Plomin said, he would like the city to make a stronger commitment to urban infill and redevelopment, and building affordable housing.
Alone among the candidates, Brown describes himself as "pro-growth and development." While he does not want to see "frivolous" development of land in Fayette County, Brown said, "At some point, the old needs to go."
He opposes PDR, saying, "It is not a basic service, and we cannot afford it." The $2 million could be better used for new sewers and street repairs, he said.
While council candidates expressed support for bringing jobs to the community, the question is: What role does council actually play in achieving this goal?
Ellinger said the council must look at more ways "to make sure the quality of life here is attractive, so we're a place where businesses want to locate and students want to stay after they graduate."
He points to additions such as the Legacy Trail, new downtown sidewalks, parks and a beautiful countryside preserved through PDR.
About 85 percent of the city's businesses are small, locally owned enterprises. Gorton said she has talked to young entrepreneurs who have opened high-tech businesses here. "They tell me it's really a lot of work to follow all the bureaucratic rules to get started."
One step council can take is to streamline "bureaucratic rules" to make sure the city is not discouraging small businesses from coming to Lexington, she said. This is an idea shared by Brown, who says council can "set the tone" to make Lexington friendly to business.
The city should "do whatever it can" to foster a business-friendly climate, Brown said, adding that "too much of what we have done in the past is shun growth like it is a bad word."
Said Kay: "We should focus economic development recruitment efforts on seeking new businesses that are likely to stay in our community, hire and train local people, provide high-paying jobs and operate in ways that keep our environment healthy."
Lexington already has a couple of good models for teaching unemployed people skills and finding them jobs, Plomin said. Those are Opportunity for Work, and Learning and Employment Solutions.
"If these two models could be expanded, we could create jobs here and keep the money right here in our own community," she said.
Pratt said he favors having city employees who make salaries above $100,000 reduce their work week to 30 hours. "This would spread the work and spread in the money," he said. "Everybody should feel this (economic) crunch equally."