$120 million in free money feels like Christmas. But Lexington needs to stay focused.

·3 min read

In asking the public how to spend $120 million in American Rescue Plan Act money, Lexington’s Urban County Council collected a dream document for civic nerds, a delicious smorgasbord of every project Lexingtonians could want or need for the next few decades. New tennis courts! A water park and a new aquatic center! Better parks! Programs to help us grow better food, look at better art, walk more trails, experience more culture.

The council started to make their picks, the most popular as reported by Beth Musgrave include $1 million to VisitLex, our great tourism bureau and a permanent Farmer’s Market built in Davis Commons. The past few weeks, the council divided itself and the ideas into different committees to try to winnow down the best ideas. Mayor Linda Gorton has her own list, which includes priorities like $10 million for affordable housing and $17.5 million for infrastructure at Coldstream Park.

On Thursday, the council voted to put $15 million toward “hero pay” bonuses for front-line workers during the pandemic.

But as I’ve written before, I would counsel our leaders to keep their eyes on the ball here. Delivering popular projects to your district is of course, great, both for your constituents and for your reelection prospects. But let’s don’t forget, the federal money was awarded to help communities survive and grow out of a devastating pandemic. The mayor and council already agreed that the top priority should go to help our most vulnerable citizens — those most affected by COVID and need the most help getting out of it. In my opinion, for example, that means yes to $10 million proposed to the city’s Affordable Housing Fund and no to Coldstream infrastructure for a company that may or may not locate here. Yes to projects and organizations that help the neediest, the addicted, the homeless the vulnerable. However much we need or want it, let’s wait on the next pool or a new aerospace education center.

That’s a simplistic view, of course; arguments can be made in favor of nearly all of these projects. For example, during COVID lockdowns, we realized how vital our parks are and how important they are to quality of life and peace of mind. Mayor Gorton is even proposing $250,000 to improve our tree canopy, which might seem superfluous, except thanks to KU, the city’s going to need it. But there is more than $120 million in desperately needed social service projects, from affordable housing to expansions at the Hope Center and the Nest to violence prevention as we face a new uptick in shootings.

Divvying up $120 million is an excellent problem to have, but it’s still a complicated and difficult process. Vice Mayor Steve Kay has also said that even when the council produces its winnowed list, nothing will be permanently off the table.

“I think council is taking this very seriously and committing a significant amount of time and energy in what is a very complex process,” he said. “We understand the opportunity, and I believe council members are doing their best to identify the projects that will have long term positive effect on the community.”

The next step decisions are due Oct. 22, and the Committee of the Whole will heard each committee’s report on Oct. 26.

I would really encourage everyone to take a look at the entire list of proposals. We’re lucky to live in a city with so many people thinking of so many good ways to improve our lives. Council and mayoral candidates should pay particular attention to the breadth and depth of what people want and need here.

“This is not the end of the conversation about these ideas coming through the community,” said 5th District council member Liz Sheehan. “I think this is a data set for the city — these are things we can be very forward thinking about in how we start to make plans for the community.”

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