The strange bedfellows of the moment — austerity and ambition — figured prominently in Lexington Mayor Jim Gray's first State of the Merged Government address.
Gray described much the same challenge as President Barack Obama in his State of the Union: How do we cut government costs to avoid mortgaging the future, while still investing to avoid a permanent state of economic decline?
Gray was surprisingly blunt about "pensions, employee overtime (and) sick-time costs we can't afford." Surprising because Gray enjoyed the endorsements of city employee groups in last year's campaign.
Bluntness is a rare trait in a politician, however. And if Gray is sincere about his promise to listen to and learn from city employees, such forthright appraisals just might lead to creative solutions.
Gray emphasized the city must meet its obligations to current employees. But as for future employees, it's been obvious for years the extremely generous disability and retirement policies are not sustainable. The legislature controls Lexington's public safety pension plans, which will further challenge Gray's consensus-building skills if anything is to change.
After three straight years of revenue declines — the first time in Urban County history — the city expects a slight uptick in revenues. But Lexington continues to spend more than it takes in, Gray said, which will require him to wield some sharp budgetary scissors, including trimming up to $16 million from the current year's spending plan.
Through the fiscal gloom, Gray identified some opportunities. The two that stood out are Rupp Arena and CentrePointe.
Gray's call for a study of redesigning and renovating Lexington Center and Rupp Arena is a sensible approach, even if it's awhile before money is available.
Transforming one of downtown's anchors from citadel into cityscape would advance the goal of creating a more inviting downtown through development of an arts, entertainment and sports district.
Maybe Lexington can capitalize on Wildcat fans' arena envy, sparked by Louisville's KFC Yum Center, which Gray held up as a benchmark.
As for CentrePointe, the non-development that put a giant hole in downtown's heart, the Gray administration is already in talks with the developer about a better plan than a towering white elephant. As vice mayor, Gray did a great job of illuminating what went wrong. Making it come out right will be a lot harder.
Finally, hallelujah, the new mayor wants to bring in experts to improve the timing of traffic lights. If he can fix that irritant, Lexington residents really will believe all things are possible.