Last month I looked back at some of the issues we faced during my four years on the Urban County Council. This month I want to talk about some of the challenges and opportunities ahead.
Our most serious challenge is the unfunded pension liability. As of July 2011, we owed about $585 million for pensions, pension bond debt and retiree medical benefits for public safety employees, and this has been growing by about $52 million per year. There is plenty of blame to go around – the council underfunded pensions for decades, and public safety unions successfully lobbied the legislature for higher cost of living adjustments, greater pension benefits and lower retirement ages. And elected officials engaging in patronage are rarely (if ever) held accountable or called out for the political support they receive from grateful employees and retirees. Lexington’s citizens will already face increased taxes and decreased city services as we pay down the pension, but Lexington must embrace aggressive pension reform to avoid a financial catastrophe.
Lexington will also have to pay about $540 million to fix our sewers, as required by the EPA Consent Decree. Given a project of this scale, Lexington cannot afford budget overages, missed deadlines or political back scratching from LFUCG contractors. Lexington needs an independent construction manager to watch over all aspects of this project.
These issues are symptomatic of a larger problem. For years, Lexington has ignored long-term obligations such as pensions, retiree benefits, sewers, roads, parks, infrastructure and building maintenance. What we need is a yearly analysis of LFUCG’s long-term financial obligations for the upcoming five- to 10-year period. We also need a new independent board comprised of our most respected community leaders, to provide the sustained leadership and vision that Lexington needs to address our aspirations and most important challenges over an extended period of time.
We must also invest in community amenities that will help Lexington recruit and retain the bright and highly skilled talent needed to compete in the global marketplace. Today’s workforce is very mobile, and many high-paying jobs can locate in Lexington as easily as San Francisco or New Delhi. Competing for global jobs means that we must make Lexington one of the most desirable places to live.
Great places to live have great parks. Lexington needs a dedicated funding source so that our parks system is among the best any comparable city has to offer. We should complete our city-wide system of pedestrian trails, so folks one day could ride or walk on trails from park to park, across Lexington, or even to neighboring towns. Completing this trail system would keep Lexington on the short list when a company is locating their new world headquarters or service center.
Great places to live also have great public art and great community landscaping. To build Lexington’s inventory of unique and engaging public art, we should adopt a public art master plan outlining how we locate and pay for public art. And for a relatively small annual investment, many of Lexington’s corridors could one day have mature trees and landscaping worthy of Richmond Road or Gratz Park.
Lexington faces many challenges and opportunities ahead. With long-term planning, Lexington can adopt less painful solutions well before a crisis begins. We must also find the political courage to resolve tough political issues and to invest wisely in community amenities, so that Lexington can become the world-class city it is destined to be.
This is my last Council Report for Southsider Magazine. Thank you for allowing me to serve.