Firefighting, golf dominate discussion as Lexington council begins budget deliberations

Sherrilyn Medley prepared to drive from the first tee Tuesday at Meadowbrook Golf Course. She said she started playing at the city-owned course more than 30 years ago.
Sherrilyn Medley prepared to drive from the first tee Tuesday at Meadowbrook Golf Course. She said she started playing at the city-owned course more than 30 years ago. HERALD-LEADER

As Lexington's Urban County Council begins deliberating the city's 2013 budget, discussion of two disparate line items — public golf courses and firefighting — illustrate the challenges ahead.

Two weeks ago, Mayor Jim Gray presented his 2013 budget. The $289.3 million spending plan is an increase of 5 percent over last year's budget. On Tuesday, the council began dissecting the mayor's proposals, the city's spending, and cost-cutting measures. While this year's budget discussions will not be as painful as they have been in the recent past, funding remains tight.

The final budget document must be approved by the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

Council member Jay McChord pressed his colleagues at a work session Tuesday to come to grips with how much the city should subsidize its five public golf courses. It was the second time in a week McChord has pushed the issue.

He said the city spends $3.2 million a year to operate and maintain its courses. The courses generate $2 million, which means the city underwrites the remaining $1.2 million.

"Three percent of the city's population plays golf," McChord said, yet, "We've basically said to meet budget, we're OK with browning out fire stations. But we're not going to brown out golf courses any day, any way."

He was referring to two incidents during fire department brownouts last week. Brownouts are periods when the city takes fire engines out of service for hours or days to save money.

On Wednesday, a man having chest pains stopped at a fire station on Shillito Park Road for help, but no one was there. The next day, it took firefighters seven minutes to respond to a house fire on Sheridan Drive because the nearest fire trucks, less than a half-mile away, were browned out.

McChord made a resolution that the question of subsidizing golf go to the general government committee, which would decide how much the subsidy should be and provide a rationale for the subsidy. That recommendation would come back to council for a vote before the budget is passed.

Several council members objected.

"We should not separate out any one (item) to arbitrarily say, you have to live with this (amount) regardless of the budget process," said council member Steve Kay.

In the end, the council voted to have Sally Hamilton, the commissioner of general services, provide information, as soon as possible, to help it make a decision on funding for golf.

Hamilton said she would include information on the number of rounds of golf played in 2012, when changes were made in the courses' business plan, plus sources of revenue and expenses for the courses "so council can see trends and get a handle on what a reasonable number for a subsidy would be," she said.

Interim Fire Chief Keith Jackson was at Tuesday's work session to describe the current process of brownouts. The chief emphasized that his policy was to brown out individual fire trucks, not entire stations, to reduce the effect in any one area.

In light of the two events last week, Jackson said he would like to reduce the maximum number of browned out engines from nine a day to six, drawing a sharp response from Councilman Doug Martin.

"We are not going to be able to continue to expand your all's budget," Martin said. "You all have to use your personnel better and more efficiently than you have in the past."

Martin said it was time the fire department took a look at the number of firefighters it sends to medical calls. He described an incident in which he was speaking to a constituent who started having chest pains. Two companies from the fire department arrived in response to the 911 call. Martin questioned why two ambulances, or one fire truck and one ambulance, were needed to deal with one person having a possible heart attack.

There are three firefighter-paramedics with each vehicle. "Six people standing around does not improve the standard of care," Martin said.

Jackson said it has long been the practice to send two pieces of equipment for medical problems.

"If we had unlimited resources, I would agree with you because I want nothing better than unlimited, great care for our citizens," Martin said. "But we have reached the end of the unlimited resources. We have to better allocate our resources."

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