Politics & Government

Many questions, few answers at Lexington meeting about program for ex-felons

April 2012 file photo of buildings at 1393 Trent Boulevard  in Lexington. Bluegrass Area Development District bought the buildings to house ex-felons enrolled in a employment training program for people just released from jail.
April 2012 file photo of buildings at 1393 Trent Boulevard in Lexington. Bluegrass Area Development District bought the buildings to house ex-felons enrolled in a employment training program for people just released from jail. Herald-Leader

City officials and residents of the River Park neighborhood wanting information about a proposed residential work-training program for ex-felons on Trent Boulevard left a meeting Wednesday with more questions than answers.

The Blue Grass Area Development District bought the former Excepticon property in January with plans for a program to help ex-felons transition back into society and get stable jobs. The development district is a state agency established by federal law to "make sure local elected leadership has input in spending federal dollars," said Lenny Stoltz II, the district's executive director.

Opposition to the program for ex-felons has mounted in nearby neighborhoods, on the south side of Lexington outside New Circle Road, with residents alleging that the Blue Grass Area Development District has not been transparent in its plans or forthcoming with answers to their questions.

At a specially called meeting of the development district executive board Wednesday, chairwoman Edwinna Baker said she wanted the 17 executive committee members — most of whom live outside Fayette County — to be briefed on the furor.

Mayor Jim Gray, who serves on the executive board by virtue of his elected position, said, "I don't think anyone would characterize this process as one that has been inclusive or collaborative."

Gray said he learned about the project through an email. Urban County Council member George Myers, whose district includes Trent Boulevard, was not notified. "When our council member is unaware of the project and it's in his district, that's a problem," Gray said.

Myers attended Wednesday's meeting, along with several residents who live near the proposed project, plus two of Gray's senior staff — Geoff Reed and Kevin Atkins.

Education and job training for ex-offenders are significant issues that need to be addressed, Gray said. "But today our community is not satisfied with where this project is," he said, noting that the Urban County Council passed a resolution April 12 expressing concern.

Gray asked development district officials whether they had a plan to be more inclusive with neighbors and city officials in the future. He received no clear answer.

"If they didn't talk to anybody in Lexington's government, how did they determine there was a need for this program?" Myers asked after the meeting.

Stoltz said details of the program have not been worked out.

"You'd think they would figure out what is the program and based on that, find property to fit those parameters," Myers said. "But they bought the property. They don't know what the need is or what the program will be."

The Blue Grass Area Development District paid $600,000 in January for the 6½ -acre Excepticon campus, which has seven residential buildings that housed the developmentally disabled until the facility closed in 1999. The development district has spent $500,000 on plumbing, wiring and maintenance to renovate the buildings, Stoltz said. He said the property was in "worse condition than we knew when we bought it."

Asked about the cost to complete the work, Stoltz said it would be about $40,000 per building.

Board member Jim Barnes, the mayor of Richmond, said after the meeting, "I think the city of Lexington should have been involved in this from day one. I can see neighbors upset because of the lack of communication."

Linda McMillan, who lives next door to the property, said after the meeting that drug dealers and drug users who lived in the buildings until they were shooed out "are now dispersed all through our neighborhood."

That concerned the Rev. Floyd Greene of First Baptist Church in Versailles, who has been in discussion with other churches about whether to get involved in the ex-felon transition program. "That becomes a concern with us now after listening to the neighbors," he said. "That might be counterproductive to the population we would be serving."

A meeting is scheduled in Gray's office with development district representatives, Lexington officials and neighborhood representatives to discuss the situation.

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