Scrutiny overdue at regional agency; Bluegrass ADD's odd secrecy, spending

Public money and secrecy are a very bad combination, as has been proven time and again.

State Auditor Adam Edelen should take a very close look at the latest example, the Bluegrass Area Development District.

The district operates as a pass-through for federal funds and provides technical services, such as planning assistance, to 17 counties in the region.

Although the ADD has an annual budget of $29 million, it's approach to business seems to have been decidedly casual, at least in regard to plans for a residential work-training center for felons the ADD wanted to open in a Lexington neighborhood.

Pretty much everything appears to have been wrong with the project.

For example, the Attorney General's Office issued an opinion that said the ADD would only have the authority to operate such a facility if a local government asked it to through a memorandum of agreement. No such agreement exists.

Although the ADD spent $600,000 for the property and over $500,000 renovating it, it's not been put into service and is now for sale.

Also, the ADD turned down a member of a neighborhood association who made an open records request for documents related to the proposed facility saying, among other things, that the request hadn't been made on the correct form and it wasn't sufficiently specific.

Yet another AG's opinion dismissed those excuses.

And there's the matter of the $300,000 the ADD paid for renovations to the property without bidding the work, to a firm owned by a member of the Bluegrass Workforce Investment Board, which was set up by the ADD.

Adding irony to the mix, the company, Fayette Heating and Air, that got the no-bid job on this facility to train felons to re-enter the workplace, advertises itself as a "felony-free environment."

So, here's the count:

The ADD spent over $1 million on something that never opened and that it didn't have the authority to do anyway; a big chunk of the money was paid to a person closely associated with the ADD on a no-bid contract; and, when a citizen asked for information the agency tried to stonewall him.

This has been unfolding for over a year but it wasn't until Monday night that the ADD's board placed the agency's longtime director, Lenny Stoltz II, on administrative leave.

Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, who represents the district where the training center was to be located has been working with the neighborhood representatives. She requested the AG's opinion on the ADD's authority to operate it and has also asked the auditor's office to look into the matter.

Both the neighbors and Westrom deserve credit for their persistence in bringing this sad state of affairs to light.

But only the auditor's office has the power and the expertise to sort through the ADD's affairs and shed light on the culture and practices that gave rise to this misuse of public monies.