Politics & Government

Officials: City ownership of Jacobson Park not a 'gift' from water company

Kentucky American Water is mounting a monthlong campaign to tout its gift of Jacobson Park to the city, but the ads don't mention that the company is required to hand over the park under a 2005 agreement with the city.

"They aren't 'giving' us anything. We kept up our side of the bargain. This is their obligation," Urban County Councilman Julian Beard said.

In 2005, Lexington was divided over the issue of ownership of the water company. The future of Jacobson Park was a key issue in the debate over whether the city should acquire Kentucky American through court-ordered condemnation.

In exchange for the city dropping the condemnation issue, Kentucky American agreed to give the 386-acre park to the city in 2011.

On Tuesday, Vice Mayor-elect Linda Gorton also declined to describe the park's transfer of ownership as a gift.

"It comes with strings attached — that we agree never to seek the purchase of the water company through condemnation. That's not a true gift," she said.

Kentucky American spokeswoman Susan Lancho called 2005 a time that was "quite divisive for our community."

"We entered a discussion with council members on how to move the community forward," she said.

The transfer of ownership will begin Jan. 2, said Lindsey Ingram III, attorney for Kentucky American.

The city's law department believes all that is required is for Mayor-elect Jim Gray to sign the deed, city spokeswoman Susan Straub said Tuesday.

The city has leased the land around Reservoir No. 4 since 1968. In 1972, the park and reservoir were dedicated and named Jacobson Park in honor of former Kentucky American manager Ernest E. Jacobson.

The water company said it acquired the property that now holds Jacobson Park and Lakeside Golf course from private landowners between 1906 and 1923 for $72,450.

The value of the park land is an estimated $20 million.

The water company's ad campaign, which features television, newspaper and Internet advertisements, started the second week of December and will run for a month. The ads will be paid for by shareholders, not ratepayers, Lancho said.

"We are not recovering costs through our customers' rates," she said.

Beard, the city's economic development director at the time the agreement was reached, questioned the water company's motive for running the ads, noting that Kentucky American's rates just went up 29 percent.

"They are trying to gild the lily and look like heroes and get the public off their back because of the rate increase," he said.

On Dec. 14, the state's Public Service Commission granted Kentucky American a 29 percent rate hike, about three-quarters of what the utility had requested.

Jerry Hancock, the city's director of parks, is pleased the city will finally own Jacobson instead of leasing it.

As residential neighborhoods have developed around Jacobson Park, "the needs of our immediate neighbors for playground space and other activities have changed, and will continue to change," he said. "By owning the park, it will allow us to make quicker decisions when issues come up."

Plans call for an extensive hiking and biking trail around the park's perimeter.

Hancock recently met with senior Kentucky American officials to ask for their assistance in improving the entrance to the park that is narrow and outdated.

"I took concepts to them to review to make the entrance safer and more attractive," he said.

Under provisions of the agreement, Kentucky American will continue to use Jacobson Reservoir as a backup source of water. The city must keep the land as a park; it cannot be sold or used for another purpose.