Mayor's budget tells story of city's lean resources

If you read a budget carefully enough it will tell a story.

The budget Mayor Jim Gray has proposed for Lexington's next fiscal year is not an action-packed thriller but a modest, hopeful tale.

Our local government's revenues come largely from taxes on earnings, and so are tied directly to employment levels. Pre-recession unemployment in Fayette County hovered around 3 percent, jumped to 8.7 percent in 2009 and now stands at 7.1 percent.

All that means the city is projecting a slight revenue increase in this back-to-the-basics $289.3 million budget.

Gray's proposing that 200 positions in city government now vacant thanks to retirements or other departures be eliminated, representing a permanent downsizing and financial savings. For those remaining, he's proposing a 2 percent pay raise (except for himself and others at the executive level) and 2.5 percent for employees who make less than the city's median income. That's an appropriate priority for employees who have obviously taken on heavier workloads but last received a raise of only 1 percent in 2009.

The only significant debt Gray is proposing is a $34 million 20-year bond issue to continue catch-up in the police and fire retirement fund. That, plus $16.2 million from cash revenues makes a total of $48.2 million to be paid against an unfunded liability of more than $220 million. We've got a long way to go. Gray is also proposing to begin two classes each of new recruits for the fire and police departments in an effort to restore some of the positions those departments have lost through departures.

Perhaps the biggest "reach" in the budget is the $1.25 million to match a $2.5 million state grant to continue moving forward with plans to renovate Rupp Arena and revitalize the surrounding area. With a total price tag in the $300 million range on the Rupp area project, Gray will have to do some heavy selling to keep that ball rolling when there are so many other demands on a spare budget.

For anyone inclined to doubt Gray's thriftiness, one item is worthy of note. When in the fall of 2008 the price tag on a proposed emergency operations center came in at $42.8 million, about twice earlier estimates, then-Vice Mayor Gray balked. "We need a reality check on things like this," he said. That center wasn't built but in this budget the city is proposing to reuse an existing building, use federal money and $800,000 in city funds for a new, improved Emergency Operations Center.

It's still a lot of money but it's a much better story.