Lexington's Urban County Council on Tuesday approved a budget under which some government services will be cut, including police escorts of funeral processions, but Mayor Jim Gray said council ducked hard choices essential to restoring financial responsibility.
At the end of a seven-hour budget committee meeting, council voted 12-0 to ratify a $273.9 million budget for fiscal year 2012 which begins July 1. Members Doug Martin, Jay McChord and Julian Beard were absent for the vote. Before the budget can go into effect, it must get two public readings, slated for 3 p.m. Tuesday, and at council's June 23 meeting.
The city can survive in the short term without making hard financial choices, Gray said, but in the long run the council's budget will compromise the city's ability to improve efficiency and reduce costs.
Council restored $41,000 to keep Meadowbrook Golf Course open and increased the fee for playing a round of golf by $1 on all city links, a move anticipated to raise more than $100,000. Golfers played 107,565 rounds on city links in 2010, said Jamshid Baradaran, acting commissioner of general services.
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Gray wanted to close Meadowbrook, a proposal that raised considerable opposition from older golfers and women who play the par-3 course. The course loses about $80,000 a year.
The police department will cut its Safety City program, which teaches pedestrian safety to second graders, and DARE, the drug education program.
But most of the 28 city jobs scheduled for elimination in Gray's budget were restored, as was supplemental pay for 59 computer service employees.
Council also restored to the budget about $300,000 of funding to partner agencies such as Community Action Council and the Human Rights Commission.
Council voted to bond the unfunded liability in the police and fireman's pension fund by $1.4 million rather than Gray's recommendation of $2.8 million, and council used some of the money for other expenditures. Council-at-large member Chuck Ellinger said council still wanted to contribute to the pension fund, "but we can do it in January."
Members also approved bonding — in essence, borrowing — $400,000 to carry out several projects.
These included $150,000 for disc golf courses at Jacobson and Coldstream parks, $100,000 for a handicap accessibility entrance at the Charles Young Center on East Third Street, $75,000 to build multipurpose lacrosse fields at Shillito Park and $75,000 to find a new use for Berryhill pool when it closes at the end of this season. Council member George Myers said neighbors have begun meeting to talk about the future of the pool and the park where it is located.
Vice Mayor Linda Gorton voted against bonding all four projects, saying after the meeting that the city should live within its means.
Gray outlined a $271 million spending proposal in April, saying the city had serious financial problems — including an estimated budget shortfall of $27 million — that would be "painful to fix." Lexington faces its fourth consecutive year of flat or declining revenue.
On Tuesday, the revenue staff reported an increase in city revenue, including a 2 percent increase in net profit tax, which council took as an encouraging sign.
However, Gray said that the country remains in the grip of a "very tough economy" and that the cuts outlined in his budget were merely "a reality check."
A proposal to lay off 26 employees was "a modest number, less than 1 percent of the total employees in our government," he said.
Of the council's decision to postpone paying debt service on the police and firefighters' pension bond until January, he said, "We are continuing to kick the can down the road, and delaying reality. The reality is, we have debts that we need to pay, investments we need to make, but we cannot do any of that until we quit spending more than we are making."
Referring to his previous job of running Gray Construction, an international design and build firm, Gray said he comes "from a business background. I am going to continue, vigorously, pursuing an efficient government." Just like a private business, the city must "lean up" and grow muscle. "We've got to come out of the recession stronger on the other side," he said.
Gray stopped short of saying he would consider vetoing portions of the budget.
But his chief of staff, Jamie Emmons, said the city's charter provides line-item veto power for the mayor, which the mayor could exercise within 10 days from the day the budget is approved.
Budget at a glance
Lexington's Urban County Council disagreed with Mayor Jim Gray on some spending cuts and favored funding some additional projects.
Favored funding projects:
$150,000 for disc golf courses
$100,000 for a handicap accessibility entrance
$75,000 for lacrosse fields
Closing Meadowbrook Golf Course
$2.8 million for police and fire pension fund
Eliminating 28 city jobs