Commission approves temporary halt on new murals downtown

City Commissioner John Sower listens as Commissioner Eric Whisman addresses a question during a meeting Wednesday to discuss murals. (Hannah Brown | State Journal)

City commissioners will be weighing in the coming weeks options to help fund repairs to property in the city — one of which would allow up to $25,000 of a “zero-match” grant for blighted housing in Frankfort.

The topic of restructuring Frankfort’s “reinvestment grant” program arose Monday during the commission's monthly work session. Commissioners discussed a spectrum of options for encouraging property owners to draw from a pot of $125,000 in city grant funds to rehabilitate commercial and residential properties. By the end of the discussion, the board directed city staff to bring back options that would draw from the commission's suggestions.

City Manager Keith Parker had brought the grants before the commission as part of the budget process. He suggested that $50,000 be allocated for Downtown Revitalization Grants, which would be down from $100,000 last year, and $75,000 for Neighborhood Reinvestment Grants. But Parker left it up to the commission to determine the particulars of the programs.

“Any way we go, we need to do it quickly,” Parker told the commission. “We’re in the first month of the new (budget) year, but we still have to advertise the grants, we still have to do applications, we still have to do deadlines and we have to pick winners. There’s a lot of work that has to get done.”

From the start, though, the commission disagreed on what the grant programs would look like as the city prepares to advertise them.

Commissioner Eric Whisman opened the discussion by broaching a divergent idea of a “zero-match” program to benefit homeowners in blighted areas. He proposed putting the entire $125,000 into the program and allowing homeowners with demonstrated need or hardships to receive up to $25,000 per project. The money could also be used for internal mechanical repairs in some extreme instances.

“There are a number of people really hurting in this community — elderly, low-income people trying to survive — that need some assistance,” he said. “… Most communities have social net services like that, which is something we really need. I’ve seen time and time again we're not providing those.”

A majority of commissioners disagreed with Whisman's proposal.

Commissioner John Sower was the first to steer the program discussion back toward its previous mechanism of a 60-40 matching grant, meaning a property owner who spends a maximum of $20,000 on a qualified project will receive a check from the city for $8,000, or 40 percent of the project cost. Sower argued that Whisman’s proposal would not help with as many homes as the current program and countered that the city should make a better outreach attempt to property owners in “areas of need.”

“I think we should stay with 40%, but I emphasize a better opportunity to reach out to poorer neighborhoods,” Sower said. “… And I think those too are property owners and we can reach them through our tax records and reach them directly. You would still get those houses in poor repair taken care of.”

Sower’s proposal included rental properties, which differed slightly from that of Commissioners Scott Tippett and Katrisha Waldridge, who agreed rental property owners should not be eligible.

“In the neighborhood grants, we should try to target homeowners,” Tippett said. “Let’s give our homeowners a break. Not that we’re opposed to folks owning rental property, but we should at least try to target our single-family homeowners.”

Waldridge said that renters should be able to reinvest in their properties with rental income. She added that the city had a program last year that provided options other than property owners entirely absorbing the cost of a project up front.

The city has offered revitalization grants for several years as an attempt to make rehabilitation of areas more appealing. Originally restricted to historic downtown and South Frankfort areas, the programs opened up in 2017 to include the Bellepoint-Buttimer Hill and Holmes Street areas, with separate pots of $75,000 available for each of the four neighborhoods. Property owners in the latter two neighborhoods have participated less than in the other two, city officials said.

Whisman opined that is because of the stipulation of the reinvestment grants requiring recipients to cover a majority of the cost. He said that requirement deterred participation by low-income, fixed-income and elderly citizens.

“I’m not saying we should stop gap grants — we still need to be willing to hear those proposals,” Whisman said. “My thought is we need to make the program more usable for the people that need it the most.”

Parker said city staff would draw up plans to accommodate the spectrum of designs from the commission. He said he will have those back for their review at the July 22 meeting.

“People that have a home and can’t afford to maintain it usually can’t afford a match,” Parker added. “So maybe we can have both for the portion where they can show that need.”

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