Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Citizen teams look at problems facing Lexington

Tom Eblen
Tom Eblen

Mayor Jim Gray was elected in November after publishing a rather detailed "Fresh Start Plan."

He then asked Christopher Frost, a University of Kentucky law professor, to round up 80 citizens and divide them into transition teams to study the opportunities and problems facing Lexington and its government. Those team reports are now available on the city's Web site, Lexingtonky.gov.

Gray already is moving to address some of the biggest problems, such as management of the jail and the police and firefighter pension system.

But the reports include many less-pressing issues, such as the deteriorating condition of the annex parking garage across the Martin Luther King Boulevard viaduct from city hall. You may have noticed the jacks holding up the corkscrew exit ramp that 16-year-olds taking their driver's test have feared for generations.

The need to renovate or replace that garage — and City Hall itself — has been widely discussed. But with money tight, don't expect it to happen anytime soon. Still, the General Services Transition Report points to a serious need to invest more in maintenance of city buildings and parks.

Lexington has a bad habit of building new facilities, then not budgeting any additional money to care for them, the report says. Such was the case last year when the restored Lyric Theatre and the Legacy Trail opened with no new funding for maintenance and upkeep. The report cites $29 million worth of "high priority maintenance needs" citywide.

The report suggests selling the city-owned Victorian Square Garage, which is in good shape, in a good location and is well-used — but not by city government. That garage could be sold for perhaps $2.5 million to raise money for maintenance of other facilities.

It also suggests creating a non-profit parks conservancy group, like Louisville's Olmstead Conservancy. While the Triangle Foundation does good work with Lexington's small downtown parks, other city parks could use similar private support.

Expect to hear a lot more from Gray and others about leveraging philanthropy and public-private partnerships. With a tight city budget, it will be essential.

One transition team's report says Gray should "use the bully pulpit of the mayor's office to make philanthropy a top priority in Lexington. ... Set an ambitious goal, such as doubling the number of assets that the Blue Grass Community Foundation manages, and work towards that goal for a complete year."

That report also suggests creating a privately funded "philanthropic liaison" within the mayor's office, such as New York and Philadelphia have, to coordinate city government's efforts with local non-profits, foundations and corporations.

When I printed out all of the transition team reports to read, I had a stack of paper more than an inch thick. They offer a lot to think about, but here are a few random recommendations that shouldn't get lost in the shuffle:

■ Appoint a Director of Agriculture to the city's economic team to focus not only on the equine industry but on diversification of Fayette County's agriculture economy. That would include more emphasis on locally grown food, and perhaps pushing for the legalization of industrial hemp, which in the 19th century was Fayette County's biggest cash crop.

■ Get the mayor and Urban County Council out of City Hall more often by having some council meetings and "mayor's night out" events in neighborhoods around town.

■ Bury power lines at the same time the city is replacing sewer lines as part of the federal consent decree.

■ Promote public transportation with more shuttles like the Colt Trolleys at special events. Make the downtown transit center more inviting by encouraging food vendors and performers to come there. Continue former Mayor Jim Newberry's emphasis on bike lanes and trails, and mark popular bicycle commuter routes.

■ Create a Community Development Corp. or "land bank" to promote redevelopment of blighted areas and vacant land within the Urban Services Boundary.

■ Develop metrics for measuring progress in such areas as jobs created by locally owned businesses, housing affordability, female and minority owned businesses and health care coverage.

■ Create an Innovative Solution Fund to solicit ideas from private industry for specific problems city government has identified but not solved. Ideas would be scored, and the best ideas would be funded.

With the economy still recovering and the city budget tight, Lexington can't act on every good idea. But that doesn't mean we should stop thinking.

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