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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Council approves mayor's appointments to new board that will enforce revised rules for property maintenance

At the City Council meeting Monday evening, former mayor Tom Bozarth and Mayor Grayson Vandegrift honored city attorney Phil Moloney, who will leave the position Jan. 31 after 13 years, (Midway Messenger photo by Hayley Burris)
By Madison Dyment, Anna McAndrew and Hayley Burris
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

After passing ordinances Jan. 6 to crack down on lack of property maintenance in the city, the Midway City Council approved members of its new Code Enforcement Board Tuesday night.

The council also heard about the loss of a project to build a stage in the city park, and honored outgoing city attorney Phil Moloney, in a celebration that included a surprise visit by former mayor Tom Bozarth.

Code enforcement: Mayor Grayson Vandegrift nominated Jo Blease, Dan Roller and Jim Starks as the three members of the new Code Enforcement Board and Janet Hall as the alternate, saying all are willing to serve and are knowledgeable in the field. He gave brief biographies of each:

Blease and her husband, Ray, moved to Midway just under 10 years ago, fixing up a home at the corner of Winter and Stephens streets, giving Blease first-hand experience in property maintenance. The mayor noted that Blease is a retired school administrator accustomed to following "the letter of the law," recently served as president of Midway Renaissance, and is eager to serve on the board.

Dan Roller
Roller is a familiar face, having served as a council member in 2011-16. He was integral to the council's update of property maintenance codes and served on the old Vacant Property Review Board, which was "basically made obsolete" by a 2016 state law that paved the way for a new approach, Vandegrift said, adding, “Dan has one of the best eyes for detail of anyone I have ever known.”

Starks, a lifelong resident of Midway, brings personal experience as a landlord to the board. “He’s a great example of a landlord who owns multiple properties in Midway, who does it the right way and makes sure his tenants are living in proper conditions," the mayor said. "He invests in his properties, and he understands how expensive that gets.”

Hall, as an alternate, would fill in for a board member in the case of an absence. "She's a retired attorney who used to work for the City of Louisville on this exact same stuff: blighted and deteriorated properties," Vandegrift said.

The ordinance says initial appointments are to be staggered so one seat becomes vacant each year. Vandegrift didn't specify terms; asked about it afterward, he said Roller will take the one-year term but wasn't sure about the others because Blease has been away "and we haven’t had a great chance to discuss it. All are eligible to be reappointed to full three-year terms." There is a two-term limit.

Vandegrift said the matter would be resolved at the next council meeting, at which he also hopes to have the appointment of a code enforcement officer ready for council approval.

The Code Enforcement Board will hear cases of property owners who don’t correct violations in the time allowed by the code enforcement officer, at least 10 days. It can levy fines of $25 to $1,000 and its rulings can be appealed to circuit court.

Vandergrift, who has been trying to create the board for several years, said he would meet with the four after giving them two weeks to study the ordinances: “We took a long time on this, so to digest it, they can start writing up the questions that they may have and then I’ll get together with them, possibly with representatives of the Kentucky League of Cities if necessary, and kind of go through a little workshop or little training session with them.”

The mayor said he would like to see the board start taking complaints early next month, “but you know, it’s been two years or more; what’s the rush? We’re not going to rush this thing through them if they feel like they’re not quite ready to be taking possible appeals.”

Park stage canceled: In a more sobering moment, Vandergrift reported the failure of efforts to build a stage in the park. The initiative was funded by a $10,000 grant from the Bluegrass Community Fund, but the mayor said the Parks Board told him in a November letter that it “no longer felt that they had the resources to complete the project, given the new constraints placed upon it,” such as architectural and utility costs.

After the meeting, Council Member and Park Manager John Holloway said running electricity to the stage would cost $8,000 and some local merchants didn’t like the project because it would create an alternative entertainment venue to Main Street, which the city recently designated an "entertainment destination center" where alcoholic beverages with vendor labels can be carried openly.

The board recommended that the city return the grant. Vandegrift said he did that, but not before trying "a Hail Mary" to save the project, getting an architect to agree to design the stage for free, a savings of $5,000 to $10,000. But in the end, he said, there were still questions about electricity, parking, "who would run it, what kinds of cost would be associated with in, and what-not."

He added, "It's a disappointment. I'll be honest; there are those who, through their fingertips, made the thing more difficult, and I regret that's a thing we have to deal with, but those people are not solely at fault. Sometimes things just don't come together. I do hope that in the future, it may be able to come together."

Also, "There's simply too many things we need to fund this year," he said. "I can't sit here with a straight face and say we don't have the money. We have the money to do the things we need to do; we just don't have all the money we'd like to have to do everything we want to do. Building that stage might have meant we can't build a sidewalk to The Homeplace from Mill Road, and I just think that would just be unacceptable. It might mean we can't finish the cemetery pavilion, or finish our big sewer renovation, and that's just not something we can accept, or I can accept, right now."

Bozarth emerges from his old office.
Saying goodbye and welcome back: Lightening the mood, the council used the latter part of the 25-minute meeting to honor Phil Moloney of Lexington, who has been city attorney for 13 years, for two mayors, seven councils and 19 council members. Jan. 31 will be his final day in the position; the council passed a resolution making next week Phil Moloney Week.

“He is one of the finest attorneys one may find anywhere and his steady hand, rock-solid legal advice and great attention to detail has meant that he has left the city better than he found it,” Vandergrift said, telling Moloney later, "You often pulled me back from my worst impulses."

In a surprise, former mayor Tom Bozarth, who hired Moloney, emerged from a back office to congratulate him and assist in giving him a key-to-the-city clock.

He told Moloney, “You were the rudder of the ship that kept us all in line down the straight and narrow and kept us out of harm’s way, and I can’t thank you enough for that.”

Moloney, who told Vandegrift in a Jan. 15 letter that he is "edging closer to retirement age" and has other things to pursue, voiced gratitude and admiration for his employers.

“One of the amazing things is that every council member and mayor I have worked with all have interests of their citizens first in mind and led with their heart,” he said. “I wish Washington, D.C., could send down some representatives and see how governments are supposed to work.”

Other business: The council gave final reading and passage to a long-pending budget amendment and granted a street-encroachment permit to Tobacco Rose, a company that installs silt fences for construction projects and has bought a lot in Midway Station. Vandegrift said about seven people would work there.

UK Community Journalism students Lauren McCally and Jo'Tessa Townes contributed to this story.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Latest print edition of the Messenger is published; news outlet's future is in the hands of the people of Midway

By Al Cross
Extension professor, University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

The latest print edition of the Midway Messenger has been distributed to most of our regular locations in Midway. If you can't find a copy, email al.cross@uky.edu or download a PDF of it here. We do a print edition about twice a year, depending on events, at the request of Midway residents.

Front page of latest Messenger print edition
The edition includes major stories published since the last print edition, in July, and several of them have been updated. It also includes a "Letter from the editor," yours truly, about the future of the Messenger. Following is a major part of it.

I am 65 and would like to do some other things while I still have opportunities. Retirement won't come right away, but it's time to plan. Soon after I realized that the Messenger, which began in 2008, wasn't going to be just a short-term experiment, I knew it needed a succession plan. You don't just start a newspaper for a community and then shut it down because you want to do other things. A newspaper is a big asset to any community, and its proprietor should try to preserve it. That's what I'm trying to do.

My first thought was that the Messenger could become a product of citizen journalism, with Midway residents doing the stories and maintaining the online presence. I'm not sure that's going to happen; I have quietly circulated this idea for three years and haven't had any volunteers. Now I'm asking publicly.

For a town of 1,700, Midway is unusually well served by media; The Woodford Sun does a good job on major events, and has a good Midway correspondent in Vanessa Seitz; the Facebook group Midway Musings has more members than the town has households.

An online survey by our first summer intern, Sarah Ladd (now at the Courier Journal), found that those responding were evenly divided when asked whether they went to Musings or the Messenger for local news. That shows different information tastes; Musings eschews political material, while we relish it.

Another difference in the two is that Musings is a social medium and the Messenger is a news medium. News media offer journalism, which emphasizes facts and has a discipline of verification; social media have little discipline or verification, though Brian Axon does a great job with Musings.

If you want Midway to have its own news medium, with real, independent journalism, I'd like to
talk with you about the future of the Messenger, in which I could stay involved for a while. You may contact me at at Al.Cross@uky.edu, at 859-257-3744, via the Messenger's Facebook page or on Twitter @ruralj.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

After council water-policy talk, mayor may drop late fee; change or repeal of reconnection fee is up to the council

Midway water customers who don't pay their bills promptly may no longer have to pay a $5 penalty, following a special City Council meeting on water policies tonight.

After the council discussed the matter, Mayor Grayson Vandegrift said he would probably eliminate the late fee for customers who don't pay within 10 days, but wanted to discuss it with Assistant City Clerk Sonya Conner, who deals more with customers.

Abolishing a bigger fee, $25 for reconnecting customers who have been cut off for nonpayment, would be up to the council because the fee is in an ordinance, Vandegrift said.

After the council heard that the fee is low compared to nearby water systems, there was no motion to drop the fee. And there was no discussion of ending the policy of cutting off customers who don't pay after 25 days -- the policy that prompted the discussion in the first place.

Council Member Logan Nance said in September that the city shouldn't cut off non-paying customers because "Clean water is a basic human right." But that idea got no support, and public debate was deferred. In starting tonight's discussion, Nance said he would like the council to address the fees and the "short grace period of 10 days" after which the late fee is assessed.

At least some council members were under the impression that water is cut off for nonpayment after 20 days, but Vandegrift said cutoffs begin on the 26th day unless that falls on a Friday or the weekend. He said water bills are mailed on the 28th or 29th of each month so customers will have them on the first of the month. People who are facing cutoffs and say they must have water for a baby or to deal with emergencies get reprieves unless they become repeaters, he said.

The mayor said the city doesn't track the number of cutoffs, but does track the number of customers who are put on the list to be cut off if they don't pay by the 25th of the month. In the last 11 months, that number has ranged from zero (in December, when "a good Samaritan" pays the overdue bills, he said) to 25 in June, with an average of 12. He said half of or more of those usually pay in time to avoid being cut off.

He said the city could extend the cutoff period, but it would need to be an extra month because of the monthly schedules that the water department follows. Council Member John Holloway said he checked with the Frankfort water system and "They found it's bad to let people go too long," because they get too far behind and can't catch up.

After Council Member Sara Hicks asked, "What is the moral responsibility of a municipality?" Vandegrift said the fees punish the poor more than the rich, and the best way to help the poor with water is to lower rates, which the city did after paying off its sewage-treatment plants, and wants to do by finding another wholesale water supplier. He noted that the city's water costs are not only for bulk water it buys from Kentucky-American Water Co., but include testing and maintenance.

After more discussion, the mayor said he was "inclined" to eliminate the late fee, which comes "probably from a time when the city needed the money." He added, "If we were to waive that $5 fee I don't think a whole lot would change."

Hicks said the city could make the change, monitor the effect and adjust in a year. Earlier, she suggested that rather than use the negative reinforcement of penalties, the city could exempt from penalties any customers who have a long record of paying on time.

Nance said as the discussion wound up, "Those are the kids of things we can do that really effect positive change in people's lives."

In other business, the council held first reading of a revised budget amendment, which had to be changed because of an error in the first version that got a first reading in December.

The council's next meeting will be at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 21, a day later than usual due to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Graviss is only Democrat in Senate race, which has 5 Republicans; Fister and 3 Democrats are in House race

This story has been revised to include the correct filing deadline for City Council. It is June 2.

Five Republicans filed for the state Senate seat representing Woodford and several other counties and being given up by former Gov. Julian Carroll.

State Rep. Joe Graviss of Versailles was the only Democrat to file for the Senate seat. Filing for his House district, which Woodford County dominates, were three Democrats and one Republican, Dan Fister of Versailles, who lost in 2018 to Graviss and in 2016 to James Kay, now county judge-executive.

The Democrats in the House race are Bob Gibson of Versailles, who announced in July when Midway Mayor Grayson Vandegrift withdrew a week after announcing; Nolan Benjamin Scott, 20 Goshen St., Frankfort; and Lamar Allen, 1643 Alexandria Drive #2, Lexington. The district (right) includes parts of Fayette and Franklin counties.

The Senate district comprises Woodford, Anderson, Franklin, Owen and Gallatin counties.

The Republican candidates vying for the May 19 nomination to face Graviss are Kirk Crawford Cleaver, 1102 Woodlake Dr., Lawrenceburg; Katie Howard, 1179 Nevins Station Rd., Lawrenceburg; Adrienne E. Southworth, Box 1056, Lawrenceburg; Calen Studler, 225 S. Benson Rd., Frankfort; and Linda Pirtle Thompson, 129 Woodgate Rd., Frankfort. Most have been campaigning for weeks; Southworth, who filed today, is the aide to then-Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton who was fired by then-Gov. Matt Bevin. Here's a Louisville Courier Journal story about her.

The two districts have long been represented by Democrats. The House district has 18,705 registered Democrats and 13,033 registered Republicans, plus about 3,000 independents and members of other parties. The Senate district's registration is more lopsided, with 53,619 Democrats, 32,645 Republicans and about 7,000 independents and minor-party members.

The deadline to file for partisan office in Kentucky was 4 p.m. today. The deadline to file for most nonpartisan offices, including the Midway City Council, is June 2. in early August. The General Assembly moved up that deadline from August in the same session that it made the deadline for partisan offices the earliest in the nation with respect to the date of the primary election.

Taylor Daniel, Adrianna Dennington and Renee Fossett of Midway made the fall dean's list at Midway University

Midway University announced this week that 283 students earned spots on its Dean’s List for the fall semester. To be named to the list, a student must be classified as full-time and obtain a 3.6 grade point average for the semester.

Taylor Daniel, Adriana Denington and Renee Fossett of Midway made the list. Versailles students on the list were Meredith Mohedano, Elizabeth Pecina, Juan Perez, Alexandra Todd and Amanda Watts.

Students from Frankfort on the list were Niki Bailey, Cameron Barton, Shannon Brunette, Cornelia Burke, Kendra Cantrell-Coyle, Emilie Hill, Sydney Houp, Molly Lecompte, Erin McQueen, Rebecca Monnin, Martha Muller, Jacob Smith, Regan Snyder, Grayson Strasburger, Sadie Taylor, Michael Wallen and Albert Woodrum.

Students from Scott County on the list were Brittany Brockman of Georgetown, Tara Casey of Stamping Ground, Sydney Coffey of Georgetown, David Coleman of Georgetown, Rachel Cooper of Georgetown, Elizabeth Hazlett of Stamping Ground, Jordan Hopkins of Georgetown, Kimberly Jager of Georgetown, Nyckoletta Martin of Georgetown, Cynthia Sexton of Stamping Ground, and Emme Warren, Madeline Wasson, Natasha Williams and Alyssa Yates of Georgetown.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Leestown Road to be closed at railroad overpass near Midway from 7 p.m. Thursday to 3 a.m. Friday

The state Transportation Cabinet says the Department of Highways will close Leestown Road (US 62/421) at the railroad overpass about 1.6 miles east of Midway tomorrow night to install drainage pipe. The location has a persistent drainage issue, posing an ice hazard in freezing weather.

The closure is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, extending to 3 a.m. Friday. "All work, and closures are subject to change depending on weather, emergencies, and other factors beyond the control of the Department of Highways," the cabinet said in a news release today.

Local traffic will be able to use Leestown Road on either side of the overpass. "Appropriate signage will be in place to guide/direct the traveling public," the release said. Guardrails were installed at the site yesterday.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

City Council votes unanimously to crack down on blighted property, create Code Enforcement Board

The building at 116 W. Main St. seems likely to be
an early enforcement target, due to its prominence.
After years of off-and-on deliberations, the Midway City Council has passed ordinances to crack down on lack of property maintenance in the city.

The council voted unanimously Monday night for an updated nuisance ordinance and an ordinance creating a Code Enforcement Board, which will hear cases of property owners who don't correct violations. The board's rulings could be appealed to court.

Mayor Grayson Vandegrift, who has been trying to crack down on blighted properties since he took office five years ago, said he would have board appointments ready for approval at the next meeting, Jan. 21.

Afterward, Vandegrift said he enforcement actions could begin as early as next month, once he decides who to appoint as enforcement officer. He said he will also have that appointment ready for the next meeting.

During discussions of the ordinances, Vandegrift said he would probably appoint Building Inspector Joshua Stevens to enforce the ordinance, but he said Monday night that he is worried that Stevens has "a time crunch," so "I'm looking to get a commitment from someone here in the community." That would be more expensive, but he said, "We're not cash-strapped, so I think we can do it." He said another alternative could be a police officer, because the job is "not a time-consuming position."

Property owners would be given at least 10 days to correct violations. If they don't comply, the case would go to the board, which will have three members and two alternates, who must have been residents of the city for a year upon appointment.

After initially staggered appointments, they would serve three-year terms, be limited to two terms and could be removed by the mayor or a council majority plus one for "misconduct, inefficiency or willful neglect of duty." They could not hold any office with the city or any agency that enforces housing, plumbing, fire, maintenance or related codes.

Vandegrift has said the board is the key to enforcement that will stand up in court. The ordinances follow state laws passed in 2016 to give cities more power to crack down on blight.  The code-enforcement ordinance can be downloaded here, and the nuisance ordinance amendment is here.

Vandegrift said during the council meeting that the ordinances had been "a long time coming" and had "hit some roadblocks," including one he hadn't mentioned publicly, the February 2018 death of council member Libby Warfield.

The mayor said he and Warfield "didn't agree on a lot" but she was "a big proponent" of cracking down on blight. To replace her, the council chose Johnny Wilson, who Vandegrift said was more skeptical, as was then-member John McDaniel. So were members Bruce Southworth and Kaye Nita Gallagher, so the mayor's efforts stalled.

In the 2018 council election, Wilson didn't run (which was the understanding when he was appointed), and McDaniel was defeated. Steve Simoff also didn't seek re-election, so new members Stacy Thurman, John Holloway and Logan Nance joined Gallagher, Southworth and Sara Hicks on the council. Early in their term, Thurman, the top vote-getter, called for action, saying "People have been asking."

Vandegrift said after Monday's meeting, "The two years that went by really showed the demand in the community. I'd say that was the driving force."

Midway Station: The council authorized Vandegrift to sign a guarantee of interest payments on the long-term debt of the Midway Station industrial park, which is being converted to a 36-month, 3.25 percent loan from a 20-year bond that matured Dec. 31. The county will again make a similar guarantee, but the two governments seem unlikely to resume such payments because of land sales and development on and near the property.

"It's a performing loan now," said John Soper, chair of the Woodford County Economic Development Authority, which hold title to the land and is the borrower on the loan, which will be held by several local banks, led by Wesbanco. The bond was for more than $6 million and the loan balance is now $2,067,768, according to a cash-flow projection Soper gave the city. It estimated that EDA will have $150,000 available for debt service, which is about 26 months' worth of debt service on projected monthly interest payments of $5,678. The loan principal is being reduced by property sales, at $65,000 per acre for industrial land and more for commercial tracts.

Other business: The council held first reading of a previously discussed budget amendment and approved an event permit for John's Bluegrass Racing Co. to hold the 2020 Iron Horse Half Marathon on the morning of Sept. 20, the Sunday of the Midway Fall Festival. Until this year, the event had been held in October; the route has been adjusted to avoid some problems that arose during this year's race. The route is mapped in the council meeting packet, downloadable here

Vandegrift announced that he would call a special meeting for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 14 to discuss the city's water policies. Nance suggested in September that the city no longer cut off water service to customers who don't pay their bills. The next regular meeting will be Tuesday, Jan. 21, due to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday that Monday. All council meetings are open to the public.