Lexington at-large candidates talk nonprofits, crime and arts

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Richard Moloney, from left, James Brown, Lillie Miller-Johnson, Chuck Ellinger, Dan Wu and Bill Farmer Jr., candidates for councilor-at-large, attend a candidate forum at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center in Lexington, Ky., on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022.

Richard Moloney, from left, James Brown, Lillie Miller-Johnson, Chuck Ellinger, Dan Wu and Bill Farmer Jr., candidates for councilor-at-large, attend a candidate forum at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center in Lexington, Ky., on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022.


Six people vying to become Lexington’s next vice mayor spoke at length Monday about the need for different tactics to combat crime and gave their thoughts on using public money for art.

The virtual forum, sponsored by the Lexington Nonprofit Network, was held over Zoom.

Lexington Nonprofit Network, consisting of more than 20 local nonprofits, started in 2020 after Mayor Linda Gorton announced that due to pandemic-related revenue shortfalls more than $3 million in funding for nonprofits would be cut. Thanks largely to better-than-expected revenue projections and additional coronavirus relief money, the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council was able to restore that funding.

Much of Monday’s forum focused on nonprofits.

Nonprofits are essential to help the city tackle an uptick in homicides and violent crimes, the candidates for the at-large race agreed. Lexington recently had its 38th homicide, a new record for the most homicides in a year.

“There are a lot of agencies out there doing great work and we can continue to support them and help fund them in our efforts,” said Councilman James Brown. “I think we have an opportunity to strengthen those partnerships.”

The city has already looked at extended social resource grants, which are given annually to nonprofits, to fund programs geared at crime prevention, particularly mentoring programs, he said.

Brown, who has been on the council since 2015, and five other candidates are running in the Nov. 8 general election in the at-large race. The top vote getter in that race becomes the vice mayor, who runs the day-to-day operations of the 15-member Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council. The second and third place finishers serve a four-year term as at-large council members, who are elected city-wide. The race is nonpartisan.

Vice Mayor Steve Kay has served three terms as an at-large council member and cannot run again. Kay has served as vice mayor for nearly eight years.

During Monday’s forum, other candidates said they would like to see more opportunities to use nonprofits to help the city address crime-related problems including domestic violence.

Last year, there were 20 homicides where the victims were between the ages of 13 to 29. This year, 10 of the homicide victims are under the age of 29, said Councilman Chuck Ellinger II. Ellinger, a lawyer, has served on the council from 2003 to 2014 and returned to the council in 2018. The drop in the number of youth-related homicides shows some of the city’s programs — including One Lexington — are working to address youth violence, he said.

But there has been a spike in the number of victims over the age of 29. Roughly one third of the homicides this year are related to domestic violence. “We are working with Greenhouse17 on that,” Ellinger said. Greenhouse17 focuses on intimate partner violence.

Ellinger said the city is also working with Cities United, a nonprofit, on a plan to address violence. That plan will look at prevention, intervention, enforcement and re-entry. “We will need the nonprofits to work at every phase of this,” Ellinger said.

Dan Wu, a first-time candidate, small business owner and advocate, said: “Public safety is a community issue and it requires community solutions.”

Wu said the city also needs to look at what types of crime are on the rise and make adjustments.

“A big chunk of our homicides this year have been domestic-violence related,” Wu said. There are great organizations such as Greenhouse 17 addressing intimate partner violence, he said.

“We need to increase these types of partnerships,” Wu said.

Wu said the city should also use nonprofits more to address mental illness and substance abuse issues that are not police matters.

Bill Farmer Jr., who served on council for a total of 20 years before being defeated in 2020, said he, too, thinks more can be done to partner public safety and nonprofits.

“Our government needs to retool to help different pockets of our community,” Farmer said. “It can’t all be done by government. We need your help.”

Lillie Miller Johnson, who has served on the city’s soil and conservation district and has previously unsuccessfully run for at-large, said the judges also need to do more to protect victims of domestic violence.

Domestic violence victims should be referred to services as soon as they come into court, Miller Johnson said.

Councilman Richard Moloney, who is has served two terms as an at-large councilman and previously served 14 years representing the 11th Council District, said the city has to hire more police officers. The city recently raised pay for police officers to up recruitment and retention. It is also looking at raising salary and pay again to deal with staffing shortages.

“We need to hire more policemen,” Moloney said. “We need to bring neighborhood policing back.”

Moloney also said the city is revamping many of its community centers. Those community centers can serve as vital hubs for nonprofits to provide critical services right in neighborhoods.

Stance on publicly-funded arts projects

Candidates also largely agreed that public art is an economic development tool.

Farmer led the charge to get a percent for art program through in 2018. That program is designed to set aside 1 percent of the total amount the city borrows each year into a fund dedicated to public art. However, some on council have questioned the funding of the program and it is now in a council committee for review.

The program recently announced approximately $545,000 in funding for various public art projects including $110,000 for art at Gainesway Park and $50,000 in matching funds for art along the newly completed Town Branch Commons trail.

Farmer said he if he was elected, he would fight for the program to continue.

“Leave public art alone and maintain its funding and use it properly,” Farmer said. “This has to stay. It’s very important.”

Brown voted for the percent for art program and said he would continue to support it.

“We need to do a better job promoting arts as economic development,” Brown said. “Investment in the arts is investment in quality of life.”

Wu, who was an art major at the University of Kentucky, agreed. Wu said the city’s public art scene is booming and a draw for tourists.

“Art should not stand alone,” Wu said. Public art should be integrated into all different types of developments, including public buildings, he said.

Wu said the city could create a sculpture garden, similar to what Frankfort and other cities have.

“I also want to see more art outside of downtown,” Wu said. They also need more diverse artists and artistic groups vying for those public art dollars, he said.

Moloney said the city missed an opportunity when it expanded Central Bank Center and built the new Lexington Senior Center without any public art component.

Moloney said there are also more opportunities for art and arts groups to use the city’s more than 100 parks.

Moloney also said he would like to see a group that specializes in arts event spaces take over management of the city’s performing arts venues such as The Lyric and Kentucky theaters. The city gave over its management of public parking garages to LexPark several years ago. That’s been a success.

“We need to take them to a different level,” Moloney said. “If we do that, we will be able to bring in more money.”

Ellinger said the city has spent a lot on the arts in recent years, including the percent for art program. It also put $2.5 million in federal coronavirus relief money into capitol improvements at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center. The Woodland Art Fair and other arts related programming brings much needed revenue into the city, he added.

“They bring in economic development,” he said.

Miller Johnson said she thinks more needs to be done to advertise Lexington’s arts programs.

“We should be advertising it in other states,” Miller Johnson said.

A tight race

Based on May primary results, Ellinger appears to be leading in the race. But it’s tight.

During the May primary, Ellinger finished first with 19,021 votes. Wu finished second with 18,568.

Brown was third with 17,699 trailed by Farmer with 16,622. Moloney received 13,699, according to unofficial results. Miller Johnson received 8,086.

Council members make $35,605 a year. The vice mayor makes $38,895 a year for the part-time position. Voters can vote for three of the six candidates in the general election.

Beth Musgrave has covered government and politics for the Herald-Leader for more than a decade. A graduate of Northwestern University, she has worked as a reporter in Kentucky, Indiana, Mississippi, Illinois and Washington D.C.

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