10 July, 2009

What You Haven't Been Told About Lexington's Economic Development Task Force

First We Disable The Security Camera

If you haven't heard much about LFUCG's Economic development task force and the half million dollars of taxpayer money LFUCG gives to Commerce Lexington each year to produce jobs here, there's a reason: these task force meetings are held in LFUCG's fifth floor conference room where there is no GTV3 camera. No GTV3 camera means no live internet feed and no GTV3 cablecast. In other words, when Council meets in its capacity as an economic development task force, it does so in a room where there will never be an audio-visual record of what was said and done.

And until recently, nobody was reporting on what goes on in those "public" meetings. I'm happy to report that the Herald-Leader's Cheryl Truman attended and wrote about the 2 July meeting as did fellow blogger, Deb Hildreth, but, as far as I know, what I am about to write about last September's meeting hasn't been reported anywhere.

Oh, and just in case you find what I'm about to tell you difficult to believe, you should know that I have witnesses who, like me, attended the 18 September meeting and heard what I'm about to report.

18 September 2008: The Commerce Lexington Report That Proved Too Much

I've been following Lexington's Economic Development Task Force since its inception and, unless they have held secret, unannounced meetings, I think I have attended every public meeting of that task force including the 2 July 2009 meeting and, more importantly, the 18 September 2008 meeting where Commerce Lexington's Pam Trautner reported that Commerce Lexington hadn't created jobs in Lexington because Lexington's job seekers can't pass pre-employment drug screens and because Lexington's schools are not preparing Lexingtonians for employment.

When your organization gets about a half million dollars a year in taxpayer money and you appear before a Council task force to make excuses about why you haven't produced jobs with that tax money, you need to be careful that your excuse doesn't prove too much as Commerce Lexington's did. If, as Pam Trautner claimed, the constraint on Lexington's ability to create jobs is our drug using, poorly educated workforce, then how does giving Commerce Lexington more money address the root issues? If, as Trautner claimed, employers don't relocate or expand in Lexington because we have bad schools and a drugged workforce, didn't she just prove that Council would just be throwing good tax money after bad if they continue to fund an organization that has no control over the root issues they identified? Wouldn't it make sense for Council to cut off the tax money they give to Commerce Lexington and reallocate those tax funds to organizations that can get our job seekers off drugs and better prepare them for employment?

After Commerce Lexington's excuse-laden September 2008 report I sat there in the fifth floor conference room waiting for one of our Council members to ask Commerce Lexington that very question but nobody did. Former Council Member, Don Blevins, came to the defense of our schools but nobody asked Commerce Lexington how the half million dollars of tax money Council gives to Commerce Lexington addresses these workforce development issues that Trautner says lie at the root of Commerce Lexington's failure to produce new jobs.

And after proving too much, after claiming that Commerce Lexington can't create jobs in Lexington because of our substance abusing, uneducated workforce, I wondered if they would have the unmitigated nerve to come back and ask for more money in 2009.

They did.

And I wondered if anybody on Council would ask how giving more money to Commerce Lexington helps get our job applicants off drugs.

Nobody did.

Oh, and don't don't look for the September 2008 meeting on GTV3 because, as I said, the security camera that is trained on your money and on your interests during a Council meeting is, in effect, disabled during Council's economic development task force meetings. No economic development task force meeting has ever been seen on GTV3.

Call your Council member today and ask that future economic development task force meetings be held in Council Chambers where they can be streamed via internet and cablecast on GTV3. You can get your Council Member's phone number at : http://www.lexingtonky.gov/index.aspx?page=1740.

Lexington, by the way, has been sold a lot of snake oil under the "workforce development" banner. There for a while every entrepreneur with a new website was claiming his new venture was, somehow, a "workforce development" tool. So Trautner's claim that employers can't open new plants or offices here because our drugged out, poorly educated workers can't do the work is an old idea that's been dusted off and trotted back out as if the result of some new research.

Let's be clear: Lexington's problem is not that we have a shortage of good workers, our problem is that we have a shortage of good jobs, a shortage of leadership and a surplus of excuses. All over town we have people with masters degrees working for $9.50 per hour or not able to find work at all.

Incidentally, I've conducted my own admittedly unscientific poll among the HR people and employers I know and they don't corroborate Trautner's claim. In fact, the employers I've spoken to tell me that it's very seldom that one of their applicants fails a drug test. Of course, I don't run in the same social circles as the highly paid executives at Commerce Lexington and it is possible that drug abuse is more common among the kind of people who can afford to live in Trautner's neighborhood than among the paycheck to paycheck common folk I tend to know.

But if Trautner knows a lot of employers who can't find drug free job applicants, perhaps Commerce Lexington should hold a combination job fair / drug screening at their plush, newly remodeled headquarters at 330 East Main where applicants with clean pee could be given on the spot job interviews with the employers who told Trautner they can't find drug free applicants.

Better yet, perhaps this combination drug screening / job fair event could be held at Council Chambers where there's already a camera and a videographer. They could make a YouTube video of drug free Lexingtonians holding up their cups of clean pee and getting interviewed by Trautner's friends. And wouldn't it be great if this PR event coincided with the next economic development task force meeting and if they held that meeting in the Council Chambers where there's a camera and a videographer?

Since that September 2008 meeting I've wondered why LFUCG Council keeps voting money to an organization that, by their own claim, cannot produce jobs and I think the 2 July meeting may have provided me with the answer. Why continue to outsource economic development to an organization that hasn't produced jobs? Why not use the half million dollars in taxpayer money to staff the understaffed LFUCG economic development office? If you watch GTV3 coverage of Council meetings you may have heard last year’s discussion of the fact that Austin, Texas has over 40 employees in their economic development office while Lexington has exactly one economic development employee. So why don't they adequately staff it and fund it instead of continuing to throw good tax money after bad by outsourcing economic development to a membership organization that, as several council members mentioned at the 2 July meeting, may, at times, have conflicts of interest that would prevent them from being full-throated advocates of the interests of taxpayers?

I think Council doesn't staff up the existing economic development office because that office reports to the mayor and I think Council would like to build an economic development apparatus that is controlled by Council and not by the mayor's office. At the 2 July meeting there was a considerable amount of discussion about how a new council and a new mayor may come into office "arm in arm" singing Kum Bah Yah but there's just something about the system that eventually pits "the 12th floor against the 5th floor".

Perhaps I'm not the only Lexingtonian who remembers how Mayor Jim Newberry and Vice Mayor Jim Gray went on local radio talk shows and talked about how the days of mayors and councils fighting with each other were behind us and yet, look where we are now. Council members have told me privately that "the 12th floor" doesn't communicate with them.

The Elephant In The Room

I think it's time we all acknowledge the elephant in the room that almost nobody is talking about: it's time for Lexington to seriously consider a complete restructuring of city government. Maybe it's time we consider doing away with the elected office of mayor and go to a city manager system where the city manager reports to Council or to a city commission that is elected by and answerable to voters.

While I totally agree with fellow blogger, Rob Morris, that "Lexington is an uncoordinated tangle of overlapping agencies, boards, task forces, committees, departments, rules, and processes. Within this messy system, each organization is charged with its own distinctive - but often overlapping or conflicting - mission, mandate, authority, ability, accountability, and expertise. Some of the organizations consist of long-term government administrators, some of elected officials, some of volunteers, others are quasi-governmental public/private agencies, and still others are fusions of all of these." I don't think his proposed governmental changes go far enough. I think it's time Lexington redesign city government in a way that would necessitate, insure and require that the legislative and executive bodies talk to each other someplace besides Council Chambers for a few hours each week.

Making the executive report to Council would also settle once and for all the question of whether or not Council should be responsible for economic development at all, a point they debated at the 2 July meeting. If the executive branch reports to Council, then Council is ultimately responsible for all legitimate functions of government, one of which would be to make city government's "business model" work.

And for those of you who have forgotten or didn't know, let me remind you that over 80% of Lexington's operating revenues come from payroll taxes which means that every time a Lexingtonian loses a middle class Lexmark job and takes a subsistence job at $9.50 per hour, Lexington loses revenue that is needed for city services. Every time Lexington businesses close or lay off workers, Council has less money to pay for city services, so I think the argument can already be made that job creation is already Council's responsibility.


One Herald-Leader reporter and 2 other bloggers attended and wrote about the 2 July meeting. Read their reports:

Cheryl Truman's Herald-Leader story: http://www.kentucky.com/latest_news/story/850809.html

Deb Hildreth's "Hildreth and Lex Transition" blog: http://debhildreth.blogspot.com/

Eric Patrick Marr's "Transform Lexington" blog: http://www.transformlexington.blogspot.com/

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