The Lexington Urban County Council voted Tuesday to make minor changes to Mayor Jim Gray's proposed $323 million budget but kept $22 million in the budget to renovate the former Fayette County Courthouse on West Main Street.
Some of the changes approved during more than eight hours of meetings Tuesday include giving most city employees a 4 percent raise — Gray had proposed 3 percent — and raising the minimum wage for city employees to $8.20 an hour July 1.
Other changes include an additional $2.4 million for paving neighborhood streets. Gray's budget called for $7.6 million for paving of non-major arteries. The additional money will bring that total to $10 million.
The council spent time discussing — but ultimately made no changes to — Gray's proposal for $58 million in bonds or borrowing. That included $22 million to renovate the courthouse and $10 million for Town Branch Commons, a proposed linear downtown park.
The council will have to give its approval for spending the bond money in the fall.
Councilman Ed Lane said he was an advocate for preservation of historic properties, but he said the courthouse had been gutted in the 1960s and would have little usable or rentable space even after proposed renovations. The total cost of the project is $38 million, a recent study showed.
"I'm going to guess that it's $600,000 a year to continue to operate the building," Lane said.
Other council members said they wanted to see a detailed report on how the renovated space could be used before approving borrowing for the project.
But city officials told the council Tuesday that they needed the council's approval in order to take advantage of a historic tax credit program with an upcoming deadline. Those tax credits could cover up to $12 million of the project total.
"There are some projects that you really can't measure in terms of square footage," Gray said. "The courthouse is the city's front door. Right now, it's an embarrassing front door."
The council also passed a resolution supporting Gray's proposal to use $150,000 to pay for part of the cost of moving the mid-century modern Peoples Bank building on South Broadway. Moving it would save it from demolition.
Tom Cheek, an architect who is working to save and relocate the building, said the nonprofit Warwick Foundation would oversee the building's operations once it is moved. The Warwick Foundation is proposing turning the Peoples Bank into the People's Portal, a type of community center.
"We won't be asking for any more money," Cheek said.
Although the council went back and forth over proposed borrowing for the Town Branch Trail and the courthouse, no council member made a motion to cut either project.
To pay for the 4 percent raise for city employees and to increase the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.20 an hour, the council cut money for fire hydrants and for nuisance abatement. Gray's administration said the city had budgeted more than the city could spend for hydrants and for abatement for code violations. The council also cut $600,000 for body cameras for police. The police department told the council during previous budget meetings that the technology was still new and that there could be some hidden costs to the program. The council will discuss funding it again in October, when it decides how to spend any surplus money.
"This technology — particularly the storage of the video — is growing by the day," Public Safety Commissioner said Ronnie Bastin during Tuesday's meeting. "It's imperative that we get the right system."
The pay raises will take effect July 1. It's not clear how many minimum-wage employees the city has. Officials said Tuesday that all are part-time, seasonal workers. The Urban County Council is considering a separate proposal to increase the minimum wage for all employees in Fayette County.
The council will take its first vote on the budget at a meeting next Tuesday. The budget is for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The council ultimately voted not to give additional money to social service programs that did not receive funding through a competitive grant program. The city received $6.8 million in requests for funding for social service programs but had only $3 million to give outside agencies. A committee of more than 35 community volunteers scored the grant applications.
Every year, programs not funded because they did not score high enough on grant applications ask the council for additional money. In previous years, the council added money after getting those requests.
Neil Chethik, executive director of the Carnegie Center for Literary and Learning, said the center lost about $50,000 in city funding this year. That money was used to pay for tutors for 100 children who are struggling in school. He said after Tuesday's meeting that the city needs to rethink how it scores and awards the grants.
"We understand the need for a funding process," Chethik said. "But when we have a crisis in the community — when our achievement gap is growing and poor children are the losers again — we need to ask if the process is working. We shouldn't be cutting one of the few programs proven effective on closing the achievement gap."
Social Services Commissioner Chris Ford told council members that he would be open to revisiting the grant scoring process.