Council lacks budget discipline

No one expected the Urban County Council to go along with all of Mayor Jim Gray's efforts to, in his words, "right-size" Lexington's government.

We had urged saving Meadowbrook Golf Course and thinking hard about two proposed swimming pool closings.

It is surprising the council is so resistant to almost all of Gray's ideas for trimming city costs and so eager to take on new obligations in the $274 million spending plan it set for first reading tonight.

Last week, as the council restored funding for an outside agency here and 18 jobs there, it brought to mind the shopaholic, who, after a few swipes of the credit card, can't stop and, before you know it, has bought a new car, or, in this case, a new police recruit class.

Not that the city couldn't use an additional 25 officers. But giving the green light to expanding the force before reforming the police and fire pension system is not a smart move. The pension fund has a $200-million unfunded liability. In addition, Lexington's police and fire pensions are not sustainable because of the unusually high rate of disability retirements.

Pension reforms have to be part of the collective-bargaining negotiations going on now between the city and its unions. Common sense would dictate the council wait to see what comes out of the negotiations before budgeting new police salaries and benefits.

But council clearly was in no mood for deferred gratification. Members decided to postpone a payment to the police and fire pension fund while borrowing money to build disc golf courses and lacrosse fields.

Who can blame them? Council members will feel the love from those who benefit from the new spending, but won't be around to take the heat when the pension fund eventually comes up short or almost every penny the city collects must go to retirees.

Like governments everywhere, Lexington's finances are riddled with structural weaknesses that can't be ignored much longer. These problems will persist even when the economy improves.

Gray has articulated a strategy for returning city finances to sounder long-term footing: Outsource jobs when it's cheaper and won't hurt performance, avoid paying recurring costs with one-time money, reduce debt to enable investment for the future.

It's hard to lay off employees who are your friends and to turn down the many good causes the city supports. The council did raise several fees to bring in more revenue.

The cuts that Gray proposed would have been painful but they were not draconian. And if there were ever a time when the public would understand belt-tightening, it's now. The private sector and many families have undergone a painful retrenching, and the economy remains fragile.

You have to wonder: If the council can't bring itself to support the hard choices proposed by a new mayor now, will it ever be able to bring discipline to the city's budget?