As state and local governments near a deal for returning the former Frankfort Convention Center’s land to local property tax rolls, some county leaders continue to cry foul over transparency.
“I think the process has been questionable from the start,” said 4th District Magistrate Scotty Tracy, referring to the decision by a group of local officials guiding that portion of the Capital Plaza redevelopment project to not initially adhere to open-meetings protocol.
Last week, City Manager Cindy Steinhauser told The State Journal she had presented the Kentucky Finance and Administration Cabinet with a new draft of the long-promised deal, which she had revised with Franklin County Judge-Executive Huston Wells, Mayor Bill May, the city and county attorneys and some input from urban planning consultant Barry Alberts. On Friday, the city denied the newspaper’s request for the revision on grounds that it was still a preliminary document.
Finance Cabinet spokeswoman Pamela Trautner said the state will review the revised agreement over the next two weeks. No meeting between state and local leaders is yet scheduled, she said.
Wells and Steinhauser have described the revised memorandum of agreement as “more flexible” as it would allow for arrangements other than the local government public-private partnership outlined in Kentucky Revised Statutes 65.028 and cited in the state’s initial draft. By statute, such a local government P3 would have to adhere to a strict set of transparency rules, including the filing of appropriate financial statements by the private partner on a periodic basis.
In an interview with The State Journal, City Solicitor Laura Ross said the revised agreement isn’t intended to preclude the use of a local government P3 or to recommend that the state’s land be conveyed to the city or county.
Meanwhile, the creation of tax incentive financing district, or TIF — a possibility Alberts and others have raised — wouldn’t necessarily be ruled out by a P3 either, Ross said. With a TIF, incremental property tax revenue that results from rising property values is typically diverted to support redevelopment for a given period.
“Please rest assured that city staff works very hard to do our jobs in a manner that wastes the least amount of unnecessary time and resources, which we very carefully and seriously balance with the need to involve the (Board of Commissioners) at all important and appropriate junctures,” Ross wrote in an email to city commissioners on Tuesday. “Further, if at any time you wish for a different procedure, we will readily comply.”
A majority of city commissioners — Scott Tippett, Tommy Haynes and Robert Roach — said they were content with the process the city’s professional staff have been using. County magistrates, however, are less impressed with the process to date.
“I feel that I have to be aggressive to find out information about the process,” 5th District Magistrate Marti Booth wrote in an email. Magistrates were provided access to the initial and revised agreements on condition they not distribute them publicly only after a Fiscal Court meeting last Thursday turned contentious.
First District Magistrate Michael Turner called for transparency “above and beyond” the norm because of the Capital Plaza project’s importance to the community.
County magistrates were also alarmed to hear that the firm Frankfort hired to craft its master downtown redevelopment plan had largely moved beyond the information-gathering phase. CityVisions’ Barry Alberts announced at last month’s Frankfort City Commission meeting that, following a number of meetings with civic groups and a single large public gathering in February, he is now at the information-analysis phase of his project. His next public meeting to present “initial thoughts” for improvement strategies is slated for early May.
Second District Magistrate Fred Goins, who is not seeking re-election this year, noted that the public meeting Alberts held in February was dominated by downtown residents. An electronic poll of the more than 150 attendees showed that 56 percent identified as living in the downtown core.
“Has he gone out in my district in east Frankfort somewhere — to a church — and made it accessible to people in my district?” Goins asked.
Third District Magistrate Don Sturgeon, who sits on the local Capital Plaza working group, said he was still expecting the collection of more input from the public and that he had invited Alberts to attend a meeting of a retirees’ group that gathers regularly at McDonald’s restaurant. Alberts has yet to appear.
Asked last week how he was ensuring that the input he gathered was representative of the community as a whole, Alberts told The State Journal he couldn’t ensure anything, but that he’s been “very open” and has been meeting with all comers.
“I think we feel pretty good about the process; I think the city does,” Alberts said. “If they don’t, they need to tell us about that, but I have not heard any complaints about the openness of our process.”
CityVisions’ $100,000 contract is indeed technically with the City of Frankfort, but Franklin County Fiscal Court is covering half the cost.
“I don’t think so far they have done $100,000 worth of work,” Goins said.
Reporter Chanda Veno contributed to this report.