Lexington learning to live on less

Government is easy to dislike from a distance and in the abstract. When you start eyeballing it with the intent to amputate specific parts in your own back yard (or city park), well, that's a different story.

Cuts hurt, even small ones, as we've seen this spring as Mayor Jim Gray and the Urban County Council have struggled to fill a $27 million hole in the FY 2012 budget for Lexington's government, which must be finalized this month.

The council has rejected a few high-profile cuts proposed by the mayor, including two swimming pools, the Meadowbrook Golf Course and the Valley View Ferry, which carries workers, shoppers and their wallets into Lexington when the Kentucky River cooperates.

These were good council decisions but involve less than $300,000, in a $270 million budget, making them budgetary side dishes.

The main course, the meat and potatoes, are personnel: salaries and benefits. Health care and retiree costs are the twin crises in Lexington's finances, just as they are for governments nationwide.

Whether the city budget actually balances will hinge on a couple of unknowns: Can the Gray administration reel in health care costs, for current employees and retirees, that spiraled out of control in recent years? What will be the outcome of collective bargaining negotiations with police, fire and corrections unions?

The biggest line in the budget — almost $60 million — is for the Division of Police. This is as it should be. Government does nothing more basic than protect life and property by enforcing democratically-enacted laws.

Because police operations make up such a large part of the budget, there's no way to leave them untouched. Lexington's force peaked in size in 2007 with 593 sworn officers. The force was down to 542 last December and numbered 534 last week. Retirements will continue to reduce the ranks but no new recruits are in the pipeline.

The police division has been asked to shoulder $4.59 million in cuts, equal to almost 8 percent of its FY 2011 budget. Chief Ronnie Bastin has developed a plan that concentrates resources on the force's core mission. This should be the template for the rest of government.

That's not to say what's being lost isn't valuable. Especially painful will be the loss of programs that put police in contact with school-age youngsters and the pullback of a community policing program from eight neighborhoods to only four.

Like law enforcement agencies around the country, Lexington's is feeling the pinch from cuts in federal dollars for community policing.

This, we're told, is the "new normal." Unless a citizens' uprising demands to pay higher taxes, we'll be living with the new normal for a while. A recent uptick in city revenue is a good sign, but as fragile as this economy is, it's too soon to declare a trend.

Bastin also plans to eliminate police escorts for funeral processions. Reimbursing the city by adding police escorts to the cost of funerals is not a solution because the real issue is deployment of resources. Bastin estimates the time spent escorting funerals amounts to removing at least four police officers from patrols every day.

The prospect of this change has produced no small amount of hand wringing and raises an interesting question: If we want government out of our lives, should we expect taxpayers to foot the bill for a police escort when we die?