Politics & Government

Will Lexington move city hall to Herald-Leader building? Divided council seeks input.

Take a tour of a proposed Lexington city hall

The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council considered a developer's proposal to move city hall to the offices of the Lexington Herald-Leader in 2018. CRM Companies had proposed gutting and expanding the building.
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The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council considered a developer's proposal to move city hall to the offices of the Lexington Herald-Leader in 2018. CRM Companies had proposed gutting and expanding the building.

A decision about possibly relocating Lexington's city hall was put on hold for at least a month Tuesday to give the public time to comment on the issue.

The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council held a contentious meeting Tuesday to discuss whether the city should move forward with a memorandum of understanding with a local developer to relocate most city employees to the current Lexington Herald-Leader offices at Midland Avenue and Main Street.

Developer Craig Turner has an option to buy the building from the newspaper, which would relocate. He and other developers submitted proposals for new government centers to the city earlier this year, and a committee of city employees recently recommended pursuing Turner's proposal.

Turner's CRM Companies would renovate and expand the Herald-Leader building at 100 Midland Avenue, adding a new council chambers on the front of the building and a police headquarters and multistory parking structure on the rear.

The city would lease the building no longer than 35 years and then own the facility and land. Some money could be raised for the move by selling the former Lafayette Hotel, which now houses the government center on Main Street, the city's Phoenix office building on Vine Street and the county clerk and police station buildings on Main Street.

The request for proposals process riled several council members, who said it did not include enough input from them or from the public. Turner's' proposal beat out three others, all of which required new construction.

"This is one of the most important things we will do that affects our city for the next 20-30 years," said councilman Fred Brown. "There should have been council involved and some public hearings. I think the process has a lot of unanswered questions," including location and traffic.

Brown questioned whether the RFP process could be scrapped and started again.

Councilman Richard Moloney went further, calling the process rushed and accusing an unnamed council member of receiving $13,000 from "the development group," which is headed by Turner.

"I've never seen anything so rushed without public input," he said, before Vice Mayor Steve Kay declared him out of order.

According to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, Turner has donated to Mayor Jim Gray in past campaigns but did not give to any council members in the 2018 primary. His wife, Madonna Turner, gave $1,000 to councilman Bill Farmer and $2,000 to councilmen Kevin Stinnett and Steve Kay.

Gray spokeswoman Susan Straub said that during the mayor's congressional campaign, "Mayor Gray and all members of the Turner family and organization deliberately did not discuss the city hall project."

Employees of CRM Companies, which is owned by Turner, gave to Kay, Farmer and Angela Evans in the most recent election cycle.

Kay later proposed that the council hold a special meeting on August 14 to allow the public to comment on the issue. The council could then vote on whether to move forward with a memorandum of understanding.

Kay said he supports moving city hall because of the cost savings involved.

"I don't believe there's any way, process wise, to ask the community about what they think about where city hall ought to be without some concrete proposals and that's what we have," he said. "My main concern was we come up with a proposal that saved us money."

Finance Commissioner Bill O'Mara released a financial analysis that showed maintenance and operations costs for the city's aging government center on Main Street, along with four other buildings that house city employees, will only continue to grow, reaching more than $7 million a year by 2030.

In comparison, the city would lease the Herald-Leader building from Turner for about $5 million a year. The memorandum of understanding would further detail the costs of moving and renovation for the city.

"This cost comparison convinced me that the question is when do we want to start saving money?" O'Mara said. "This campus is very expensive."

Council member Amanda Bledsoe pointed out the numerous years that council members have discussed a new home.

"It's not a new situation, the question is, is it time to make this the top (priority)?" she said. "I believe throwing good money after bad is not wise."

The discussion prompted Mayor Jim Gray to make an appearance before the council. He said the issue came up 12 years ago when he was first elected to council because the offices were "hemorrhaging" taxpayer dollars. A similar search was put on hold by the 2008 recession.

"Fortunately, times change, our economy has changed, but holding this building together with band-aids and bailing wire has not changed and the hemorrhaging has not changed," he said.

Gray said he, like the council, opted not to be involved in the request for proposal process because of the perception of political influence, but the council was informed and encouraged to ask questions along the way.

"I want to make sure it's clear that this process was exhaustively, exhaustively correct.," he said. "When we use the language of kicking the can down the road, I do think that's appropriate."

After the meeting, Turner said he thought many questions could be answered by his proposal.

"I think the new building has great opportunities for the city,"' he said. "This is a new process, this is a new way of attacking things in the future from a financial standpoint ... I think today was a day everybody needed to get on the table with things they think are important. When all the dust settled, I think everyone will come to be comfortable with the decision."

Three council members — Kathy Plomin, Preston Worley and Angela Evans — recused themselves from the discussion because of connections to people involved in the deal.