By Kakie Urch
While the weekend warm-up with Diane Sawyer's Children of the Mountains ("Mountain Dew Comes To The Cumberlands") was a bit distressing in tone -- despite the indeed urgent need to help communities in the mountains get health and dental care -- over on CNN, Lexington looked pretty good.
At least it had a list.
Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry was one of three mayors featured on CNN's Saturday Morning's Feb. 14th extensive coverage of the $776 billion stimulus package, approved by the Senate late Friday night and slated for President Obama's signature in Denver tomorrow.
Also featured with Newberry were Mayor Rita L. Mullins of Palatine, Ill. (a city of about 70,000) and Alexandria, Va., Mayor William Euille. All three had been been at the Feb. 6 U.S. Conference of Mayors White House meeting with President Obama and staff about local community needs. All three had submitted large "wish lists" of what are "shovel-ready" projects that can begin within 90 days to offer true and immediate local job stimulus.
Lexington's list is $556 million long -- for perspective, give or take about $94 million and depending on the tax revenue forecast, about the current amount of the Commonwealth's entire statewide budget deficit. But while we're wishing. The list includes some exciting-sounding quality of life projects including $15 million in renovations to the Distillery District, and a $19 million bike and pedestrian path to Versailles. It also includes a $35 million public safety operations center, which is the kind of infrastructure that would come in handy in another ice storm, public emergency or tragic accident. It also includes funding for Phases II and III of the general aviation runway at Bluegrass Airport, upgrades to Cassidy Elementary School and Bryan Station Middle School.
Additionally, there are some significant "green" and recycling infrastructure projects, which are not as exciting as say, a multistory waterpark INSIDE Festival Marketplace with a slide that deposits you in time for the tip right into your Rupp Arena Cats seats and serves you a Stella, but....
Interviewed by Saturday Morning Anchor T.J. Holmes, (who wore a shockingly rough-hewn but clearly couture tie alternating diagonal stripes of red Scots clan plaids with black silk -- some secret kilt kink signal to that special one on VDay?), Newberry, with the Lexingon skyline framed up behind him, was the white guy out. Featured in his box shot with a female mayor and an African-American mayor and an African-American anchor, he looked, conservative to say the least.
But, Lexington's was the biggest list on the program -- with more than 160 items, as anchor Holmes stressed, dramatically waving the paper in an investigative gesture that Newberry countered, for all the mayors, with the definition of "shovel-ready" and how that fits into immediate jobs creation. He also mentioned the process by which Lexington arrived at the list, pulling together staff and community input and (while we're talking shovel-ready here) at least a fairly well-organized planning department to do the sorting and vetting.
And he acknowledged that it was a wish-list and put the long-term spin on even short-term seeming projects like painting lampposts. Holmes' questioning, after that answer, seemed to return to Newberry for the final word on most matters in the nearly 20-minute segment.
Mayor Mullins of Palatine brought up the issue that some states, like Illinois, face, with budget deficits that may be plugged with stimulus funds as the checks make their way from Washington to governors to city coffers.
Holmes repeatedly questioned the mayors on exactly how and when they would see the money, but none of them really could answer this question, though Newberry cited the great cooperation Lexington has with Gov. Steve Beshear and that his office has been involved in the effort to reach out for the funds.
On-screen graphics showed bullet facts about each city's economy, including Lexington's 7 percent unemployment rate, the highest in decades.
Holmes went a bit off-topic, querying Newberry about the "big controversy" in his city about the proposed $14,000 salary increase for the city's top fiscal officer, at a time when the city had proposed a 2 percent increase for regular workers, upped to 3 percent by council on review, and was cutting city jobs. (No mention of the true controversy of the C-pointe word was made.)
Newberry responded to this well, (from a public relations standpoint, and I in no way have the personnel jacket to verify) saying that the worker in question, in the time of budget tightening and city job reduction had taken on significant extra responsibilities.
This $14K seems negligible compared to whatever may have been thrown at certain C-word projects just for PowerPoint overtime alone ...and, many folks out there these days can relate to being one of the last people still employed doing the uncompensated, extra and yet still vital work of what used to be a staff of six. Holmes was searching for an investigative moment that wasn't there.
President Obama was inaugurated Jan. 20. The first reports of Lexington's wish list were published Jan. 21, with the list submitted to the White House by Feb. 4.
And, as University of Kentucky President Lee Todd told a faculty breakfast at Maxwell Place on Jan. 22, Todd himself was on the phone with the Secretary of Education on Jan. 21, in his capacity as the leader of the land grant colleges' presidents' association, working out just how some of the educational stimulus funding might reach UK.
(If Todd is successful, some of this education money may actually be able to be used as dental/healthcare outreach to get Diane Sawyer back in the fold. The UK dental school already has a major initiative on this problem, which is national in scope and not just a “Kentucky Ugly.” Kentucky just has the most toothless).
Throughout, LFUCG and University folks are communicating with Gov. Beshear's office and staff and with what's left of the media.
So, while Centrepointe and Mountain Dew Mouth raise significant questions, it seems that Lexington Mayor Newberry, with a list in his hand 24 hours after the inauguration and as one of 20 mayors with that list in the Obama White House less than two weeks later, is efficiently doing what we hope of our public officials.
Can anyone cost out a capital project for sodding a city block all quick-like?
Urch is an assistant professor of new media in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications.