By Ronica Shannon
Senior News Writer
RICHMOND — Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series profiling candidates in the Nov. 6 election for Richmond City Commission.
Incumbent Donna Baird, who is nearing the end of her first term on the Richmond City Commission, said the city’s governing body has had “a busy year.”
“We worked together to balance the budget,” she said. “We have the city running more efficiently. We are operating in the black with $4 million in reserve. We have paid off and consolidated debts. We have not laid off any employees. Employee morale is up. Employees are not concerned about their jobs.”
However, her work as a commissioner is by no means finished, she said.
“We will have to build on what we have started,” Baird said.
Being that the city now has a surplus, that does not necessarily mean that more money should go back into departments that were financially cut in the past.
“The Parks and Recreation and Buildings and Grounds were split into two separate departments,” she said. “The budget was also split. I would not anticipate a budget change. We feel it is adequate for both departments.”
A big issue drawing much controversy throughout the county is what has been dubbed “The Fairness Ordinance,” which if passed, would ban discrimination against LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender) people in housing, employment and public accommodations.
“I don’t believe there should be a separate ordinance for the Fairness Act,” Baird said. “I believe everyone is protected by the constitution. I would like to see more advertising by the Human Rights Commission to notify everyone where they are located and how to reach them.”
The city’s storm water problem also has been the center of many discussions.
“We are aware of the storm water problem,” she said. “We are working to fix it. We will have to borrow for repairs. Right now, we are looking at $4 million for Water Street alone. We have to work within our revenue.”
Another point of controversy this year was rezoning of property at the corner of Barnes Mill Road and Lancaster to allow construction of a privately owned student housing complex.
“I believe we made the right decision,” she said. “It was the hardest decision I've had to make. It was a decision for the future of the city.”
Revitalizing Richmond’s downtown area is a topic that is seems to be on every commissioner’s mind.
“We are employing a downtown coordinator,” Baird said. “This person will visit businesses on a routine basis. They will have the opportunity to meet with other business people. The downtown coordinator will be a contract employee, with an expense account and city vehicle. We believe this is a necessary position. We need to take care of the businesses we have downtown and encourage new business.”
Allowing local restaurants to sell alcohol past 9 p.m. on Sundays is something Baird does not favor.
“This was an agreement made with businesses several years ago,” she said. “The only complaints we have received are from patrons of and the owner of one establishment. We have no plans to change this agreement.”
Jason Morgan also is completing his first term as a commissioner and believes the city’s surplus should be invested back into the community or a tax break should be given to residents.
“I think we have an 8.5 percent budgeted profit this year and government should not be making a profit from its taxpayers,” Morgan said. “They need to re-invest the money into the community or give tax breaks. I think we should set up a ‘Rainy Day’ fund for emergencies.”
When it comes to the city’s parks and recreation department, “If the parks department sees the need to increase their line item (in the city’s overall fiscal-year budget) we’ll do that,” he said. “If not, we’ll keep it the same.”
The city is down two firefighter positions, which Morgan said should be filled.
“We’re budgeted for 64 and we ought to be at 64 (firefighters),” he said. “Right now, we’re at 62. Fire protection is crucial.”
Morgan is in favor of launching a long-term, storm-water drainage study to help solve a problem that has plagued the city for decades.
“I’ve met with the people whose homes have flooded,” he said. “I’ve seen tears go down their face. They said, ‘This is my home, this is my dream.’ We have to do something to protect those people. In 2008 or 2009, the city commission implemented a (estimated) $2 fee on resident’s water meters. I have been advocating that the amount of money collected be transferred into a storm-water fund.”
The zone change on Barnes Mill and Lancaster Avenue to build a housing complex was “the right vote,” Morgan said.
“I walked that subdivision (near the construction site), and I have found that there are as many people for the project as there are people who are dead set against it. There’s going to be four parks within walking distance of that neighborhood. If it’s good for Richmond and it’s good for Eastern (Kentucky University), then I think we can live with it.”
The Fairness Ordinance issue is one that should be taken up at the state level rather than the local governmental level, he said.
However, if it ever comes to a vote before city commissioners, “We have to agree that this is a divisive issue and for us to move forward, we have to realize that half the community is for it and half of the community is against it,” he said. “We have one chance to make this right. Those against it may not get everything they want, and those for it may not get everything they want.”
Some downtown Richmond projects Morgan would like to see include renovation of the historic Glyndon Hotel and working to bring more industry into the downtown area.
“We have some money sitting in CDs for community development block grants,” he said. “That money can be used. It’s money that was given to the city for industries.”
Morgan was convinced that Sunday evening drink sales should be extended past 9 p.m. after speaking to a restaurant located in Richmond Centre.
“It would be a $20,000 to $30,000 hit to one local restaurant,” he said. “This is something we need to bring to the table and let the community have a voice.”