Lexington’s Investment in Local Food Is Starting to Pay off in a Big Way

Bluegrass Farm to Table

A robust local food system is  good not only for environmental sustainability and for Lexington’s economy, with its deep roots in farming,  but it also supports the community in one of its greatest underlying sources of wealth—the health of our present residents and future generations.  That’s why I worked on grant support and city funding for creation of the first ever local food coordinator position in 2014.  I am grateful to Mayor Gray, Chief Development Office Kevin Atkins, and my colleagues on Council for their support of this initiative.

We were fortunate to hire Ashton Potter Wright as the local food coordinator in the summer of 2014. She has done an incredible amount of work in less than one year on the job.  What follows provides information about just one the of the many developments that the newly-named Bluegrass Farm to Table that she heads has brought to our community.

In cooperation with my office and the Blue Grass Community Foundation, Ashton secured a highly competitive Federal grant that will bring dollars to our city and increase the health of our citizens. The program, to be available starting in June of 2015, is called Bluegrass Double Dollars.  Through a matching program, it will help SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) recipients purchase local foods. The program and its funding are important because while local food improves long-term health outcomes, it is often more expensive than other options.  For those struggling to make ends meet, the program will help overcome this serious obstacle to a healthier lifestyle. We want more families, especially our community’s neediest children, to have access to healthy, local food and the quality of life it enables.

I encourage you to learn more about the program from Ashton and community leaders at the Blue Grass Community Foundation–in their own words–by checking out this great video feature highlighting this new and exciting program:


Also, please “Like” Bluegrass Farm to Table on Facebook so that you can stay connected to the many ways that Ashton and the many cooperating individuals and organizations are working to develop and enhance our local food economy.  You can do that by clicking here.

We can all be proud of the work that Ashton  has done in her brief time as local food coordinator to increase increase revenue for local farmers and improve the health of our community.

 

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Downtown Design Excellence Update

Downtown

 

As the initiative to implement Downtown Design Excellence Standards and Guidelines moves forward, this post provides a review of the history of the issue and then an update on present progress.

What are the Downtown Design Excellence Standards and Guidelines?

The standards and guidelines are zoning regulations meant to protect the character of downtown Lexington. They give the public a greater voice in the look and feel of the downtown.  You can view the proposed standards and guidelines here.

Why is Lexington considering them?

Development projects with potential for major impact on the downtown have been proposed with little or no opportunity for public input. Many stakeholders have suggested that given Lexington’s urban service boundary, we need to stimulate growth downtown that is attractive and conducive to a great American city. The alternative is expansion into the rural areas, which would threaten our signature productive rural landscape.

What are incentives and why are they being supported in parallel with design excellence?

Some stakeholders believe that incentives should be adopted along with the standards and guidelines. In their view, even regulations that foster shared value with design excellence may discourage developments in the urban core. Incentives such as additional staff support, streamlining the development application process, improved public infrastructure, and direct financial assistance are being considered as  ways to encourage well-designed growth and make downtown the vibrant heart of Lexington.

Where does the issue of downtown design excellence stand?

The Downtown Design Excellence Task Force approved the Downtown Design Excellence Standards & Guidelines at the end of 2104 and then continued deliberations in the spring of 2015 about accompanying incentives to recommend. Given the complexity of the issue and the likely large number of new Council Members as a result of the fall elections, the Task Force decided to wait until the new Council was seated to move the recommendations forward.

The renewed effort began with a Council workshop in January, 2015 to provide the background and history for new Council Members and to bring all Council Members back up to speed on the issue. As chairperson of the Task Force, I then presented the recommendations at the February 10th, 2015 meeting of  the Planning and Public Safety Committee. Following the presentation and discussion the Committee asked for more information on the incentives options available and the status of development in the B2 zones which cover the downtown area.

The Planning and Public Safety Committee again considered the recommendations at its April 14th of 2015 meeting. At the conclusion of that discussion I made a motion to place the recommendations on the Council docket. That motion failed, and the Committee chose to keep the issue on the agenda for further discussion at its next meeting, on May 12th, 2015.

I look forward to concluding the discussion in committee and moving the issue on to the docket for approval by the full Council.

 

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Minimum Wage Increase for Lexington: Ongoing Deliberations

Minimum Wage Presentation

Jason Bailey, Director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, presents research on minimum wage

Background

Many state and city governments are raising the minimum wage above the federal minimum, which currently stands at $7.25 per hour.  Advocates for the change often cite the declining purchasing power of the federal minimum wage as well as growing income inequality, whuch is at its highest level since the Great Depression.

The state of Washington has the highest state minimum wage, $9.47 per hour.  Seattle, Washington will have the nation’s highest municipal minimum wage at $15 per hour.  Kentucky’s minimum wage remains in-line with the federal minimum—$7.25 per hour.

On December 18th, 2014, Louisville Metro Government voted to increase the city’s minimum wage to $9 over 3 years.  Louisville’s wage will increase to $7.75 in July of 2015, $8.25 by July 2016, and $9 by July 2017.  While the ordinance has received a legal challenge, Louisville’s County Attorney shared his office’s opinion that the city could raise its minimum wage without being in violation of state law.

Lexington

At the February 10th, 2015 work session, Councilmember Jennifer Mossotti proposed that the Lexington Fayette Urban County Council consider the issue of minimum wage.  After some discussion of the topic, Councilmember Mossotti moved to place minimum wage into the Budget, Finance, and Economic Development Committee.  You can review the full meeting online here.   Streaming Video of 2/10/15 Work Session

On March 17th, 2015, the Budget, Finance, and Economic Development Committee convened and discussed minimum wage.  You can view the full meeting online by clicking here:  Streaming Video of 3/17/15 Budget, Finance, and Economic Development Committee Meeting

Councilmember Mossotti provided an introduction to the issue and then welcomed Jason Bailey, Director of the Berea-based Kentucky Center for Economic Policy (KCEP) to present their research on the issue, which is included in the Committee’s packet:  3/17/15 Budget, Finance, and Economic Development Committee Packet

Because a large number of people wished to speak to the issue and the committee had a limited time to meet, 19 individuals who had signed up to speak were unable to be heard. I voted with the majority to keep the issue in committee and place it on the agenda for the next meeting for further input and discussion.

Next Steps

Minimum wage will continue to be discussed at the June 23rd, 2015 Budget, Finance, and Economic Development Committee meeting starting at 1:00 pm..  Councilmember Stinnett, chair of the committee, said he will also consider calling a special meeting earlier in June to allow for more extensive public input.

This Lexington Herald-Leader editorial supporting the proposed change provides some of the key data on this topic:  “Schedule Hearing on Minimum Wage

I agree with the main contentions in the editorial and am presently in support of this effort.

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Update on CentrePointe

On Tuesday, September 16th, the developers and the administration together brought forward a new CentrePointe TIF proposal for council consideration. The council voted unanimously to support a bonding mechanism for the parking garage, an initiative coordinated by the Kentucky League of Cities. My vote for this project was guided by two beliefs:

1.)  A successful development in the heart of our city, complete with a downtown parking facility, is a good outcome for our community.

2.) The project’s many twists and turns as well as its financial complexity have made the funding mechanisms difficult for the public to understand. This is why I have supported a clear bottom line throughout: no liability for the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government.

Beth Musgrave with the Herald-Leader provides a straightforward summary:

The city’s only obligation is pledging the new tax revenue from the project to pay the debt, Juett said. If the development is not successful, the city and the League of Cities will not be responsible for paying off the bonds. All the risk is on the buyer of the bonds.

During the meeting, Vice-Mayor Linda Gorton also highlighted an important concern: what if the bonds do not sell? We learned that this risk is reduced when a private underwriter purchases all of the bonds up front and then resells them to bond buyers, which we were told is likely. In either case there is no risk to the city.

As the Herald-Leader reported, the city’s only role in the agreement is to pledge a portion of the additional tax revenue to pay back the bonds. That means if the project is economically successful and brings in more tax revenue to LFUCG, a portion of that new revenue will help pay back the bonds.  The TIF bonds will be used to finance the new parking facility and no other aspects of the CentrePointe development.

The council was unanimous in its support for this latest financing proposal. It is my hope that, with this last financing piece in place, this long-delayed project will now go forward successfully.

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Best of Bluegrass (BoB) Adds to Lexington’s Vibrant Music Scene

The 2014 Best of Bluegrass (BoB) is June 9-12, the week before the Festival of the Bluegrass at the Kentucky Horse Park.  BoB will feature performances, workshops and community events in downtown Lexington in conjunction with the Festival of the Bluegrass. There will be free concerts every night in a variety of venues.   Dale Ann Bradley is performing at Thursday Night Live and KET is live-streaming the show.  LexTran will be offering a shuttle service between the park campground and downtown.

In my recent Council Comments,  I spoke with Art Schechet and Tom Martin, two of the BoB organizers and supporters.  They provided some of the background and more information about BoB, the local music scene, and the Lexington Area Music Alliance, a key presence in Lexington’s burgeoning music scene.

Come downtown June 9-12 to take advantage of this opportunity to hear world-class music in a casual setting.  See the full schedule here.

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Lexthrive

Council received an update on Lexthrive, LFUCG’s Health Management Strategy, on May 6th. You can see the presentation here.  The operation of the Samuel Brown Health Center, the city employee pharmacy, and  the incentive program are key components of that strategy.  The good news is that 60% of the employees have completed a biometric screening and are using the Health Center.  The total savings in paid claims in a one year period is over $2 million.  1,659 patients have been identified with biometric risk factors, 70% have been engaged, and 40% have improved their health.

The Health Center is seeing almost 900 patients per month for health coaching and acute care and a total of 20,000 per year including occupational services.  Appointments are currently 98% filled.  Looking forward they plan to address the growing demand for care, increase the engagement of the target population (those identified with health risk), and increase the number of patients making clinical gains.

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The Anatomy of a Budget

The LFUCG budget is comprised of several different funds – the General Services District fund (General Fund), the Urban Services District fund, multiple special revenue funds, pension trust funds, and internal service funds. There are also several capital project funds and enterprise funds.  The largest is the General Fund ($313 million).  84% ($262 million) of the revenue received by the General Fund is from licenses and permits, 8% ($24 million) is from services, and 7% ($22 million) is from ad valorem taxes. You can get a copy of the FY 2015 Mayor’s Proposed Budget, and you can watch the first Council meeting on the budget here

The Proposed Budget anticipates an increase of General Fund revenue of $16 million (5.4%). The proposed growth rate is the largest since 2007 and Council will have to decide if that is a realistic expectation.  The bulk of the increase ($8.5 million) is employee withholding.

The Proposed Budget also includes an increase in expenditures of $14 million (4.9%) with 64% being personnel ($9.3 million), 15% operating ($3.9 million), and 11% debt service ($33 million).  55% of the General Fund budget is spent on Public Safety ($172 million) with an increase over last year of $7 million including 15 new positions each for Police and Corrections.  Proposed spending on partner agencies increased by $700,000; debt service decreased by $500,000; and both the Local Food Coordinator and the Office of Homelessness Intervention and Prevention are funded.

Council has a long way to go in analyzing the budget and the Links, sub-committees to analyze portions of the budget, are meeting now.  The Links Report Out is scheduled for May 27th at 10:00 am.  You can find a copy of the packet here when it is posted and view the meeting here.

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Lexington’s Distressed Urban Forest

Buriedtoodeep My aide, Leah Boggs, recently toured Lexington’s Urban Forest.  Here is her report:

The tour was sponsored by the Lexington Tree Foundation and the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.  Parts of the tour were depressing because of trees that were buried too deep, had mulch volcanoes, were planted improperly, were root bound, and were damaged by mowers and other contractors.  To address these issues the city’s Planting Manual needs updating to correct ordinances that are conflicting, have gaps, or are not enforced.  rootboundatlibrary

The good news is that there is some progress.  The Planting Manual is in the process of being updated and Environmental Policy is reviewing all tree related ordinances.  In FY 2015, Environmental Policy will add two staff members dedicated to street tree enforcement.  The Mayor’s Proposed Budget also includes funding for the Street Tree Cost Share Program to assist homeowners with street tree removal and replacement.  It is a good start but more needs to be done.  Enforcement of landscaping on commercial development is the responsibility of Building Inspection but the position dedicated to this enforcement was moved to Environmental Policy.  This vacancy needs to be addressed.

Lexington must address the damage caused by contractors and improper planting. Otherwise we will never be able to increase our tree canopy in a meaningful way, and we will keep planting the same areas over and over at a huge cost to the taxpayer. Fortunately, Susan Plueger, the new director of Environmental Policy, is aware of the problems and is taking steps to address them.  She needs our support.  We thank Susan for her efforts.

 

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Senior Center Design Presented

Commissioner Beth Mills presented the design for the new Senior Center at the Council Work Session on Tuesday.  EOP Architects and Catlin Petrovick Architects designed the building after a collaborative process that included public meetings and design charrettes.  The design addresses the three most important aspects of a senior center: education, wellness and fitness, and socialization.  The $13 million budgeted for the Center will be enough to design, build, furnish, and landscape the Center, and provide a van. It will be a great asset to Lexington’s senior citizens.  You can watch the meeting here.

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Dedicated Funding for Affordable Housing

At the Council Work Session on Tuesday, April 15 I moved to put a resolution on Council’s next meeting docket that would provide a dedicated funding stream for the Affordable Housing Fund starting in FY 2016.  Council previously approved funding for FY 2015 from the FY 2014 Fund Balance.  My proposal required that an amount equal to 15% of the insurance license fees received in the previous year be placed into the Fund annually, approximately $3.96 million. On an 8-7 vote, Council voted against the motion, with those opposed preferring to wait to make this decision until the administration presents a detailed plan for the operation of the Fund.  You can watch the meeting here.  You can read the Herald-Leader report of the discussion here.

Earlier in the day, Comm. Paulsen presented at the Planning and Public Works Committee a preliminary plan for the operation of the Affordable Housing Fund .  A complete plan will be coming to Council before our summer break in July.  You can watch the Planning and Public Works Committee meeting here.

While I would have preferred passage of my motion, I am pleased that the issue continues to move forward.  I believe that the final outcome will be positive, and that we will allocate the resources necessary to address the long-standing issues of homelessness and the need for more affordable housing for our low-income community.

 

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