FEBRUARY 15, 2022 5:21 PM
The downtown Lexington skyline at sunset on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. ALEX SLITZ ASLITZ@HERALD-LEADER.COM
Fayette County sheriff’s deputies soon will be patrolling downtown Lexington streets in the early evening hours to beef up police presence and address business owners’ concerns about crime.
The Downtown Lexington Management District, which has been working with the city, Lexington Police Department and business owners in the downtown taxing district, will pay the bulk of the salaries of the four deputies — ponying up $65,000. The city of Lexington will pay $30,000, according to Kevin Atkins, the city’s Chief Development Officer.
Lexington Police Department has units designated for downtown but doesn’t have enough additional officers to add to the patrol, said Lexington Fayette Urban County Councilwoman Hannah LeGris, whose district includes much of downtown. The department, like many across the country, is facing a shortage of officers.
“The sheriff’s department had more capacity to make this work,” said Atkins during a Feb. 8 council work session. “If people don’t feel safe, they won’t come to events down there.”
The deputies will work from 4-10 p.m. starting sometime in April, said Jim Frazier, chairman of the Downtown Lexington Management District. They likely will work from Wednesday to Saturday, typically downtown’s busiest times.
The city is expecting more people downtown as temperatures rise and people want to return to socializing after a cold winter and a surge in coronavirus cases, Frazier said.
“We have to be ready,” he said.
WHERE ARE FUNDS COMING FROM?
Frazier said he asked city officials for $150,000. That money would have covered an additional shift of officers from 10 p.m.—2 a.m. However, the city agreed to give the district only $30,000, which means there won’t be enough money to cover the late-night shift. The $30,000 will come from savings from utilities, according to city documents.
Frazier said the Downtown Lexington Management District’s $65,000 will come from money it typically uses for grants to increase lighting downtown and to help refurbish exterior buildings in the management district.
During the Feb. 8 council work session, some council members questioned why the Downtown Lexington Management District wasn’t footing the entire cost of adding the additional officers.
The district levies a property tax on properties within its boundaries, which is roughly an area surrounding Main Street in the downtown core. In 2020, that property tax generated $481,666, according to the Downtown Lexington Management District’s web site.
More than 60% of the management district’s budget goes to a management company called Block by Block, which provides ambassadors who help clean downtown, provide a friendly face for visitors and also escort office workers who don’t feel safe to their buildings, Frazier said.
Vice Mayor Steve Kay, who serves on the district’s board, said they have been trying to figure out the most cost-effective way to increase police presence.
“Our police force is short handed,” Kay said. “They have added patrols but there was limit to what they can do.” Combining revenue sources was one way to provide more police now, he said.
UPTICK IN SHOOTINGS, HOMELESSNESS
After months of pandemic restrictions, people began to gather downtown in large numbers particularly on the weekends in the summer of 2020, business owners have said.
Last summer, there were a string of shootings in the downtown area including two teens shot near the intersection of High and Mill streets. Also in late June, a 30-year-old man was shot killed near North Mill and Short streets.
The number of people downtown, particularly around Tandy Centennial Park, near the 5th/3rd Pavilion area, has also increased, creating problems for restaurant and other first-floor business owners. Business owners have seen people openly dealing drugs in that pavilion. Not all of those people are experiencing homelessness, business owners said.
Some business owners said they did not want to talk on the record because they are frustrated with the city’s lack of response to the problem and fear reprisal.
But the number of people experiencing homelessness downtown has increased over the past two years, many business owners said.
“I get calls about it everyday. These merchants are upset,” Frazier said. “Many of these people have mental health issues or drug issues. It’s a very complex problem.”
Some of the most frequent complaints are people taking food from restaurant customer’s plates, aggressive panhandling and other behaviors that scare away customers, Frazier said. Other cities across the country are also seeing a rise in the number of people living outside.
LeGris said the city and the downtown management district, of which she is a board member, are also working on more programming for downtown to give people more entertainment options.
“We are particularly looking at additional programming for Tandy Park in addition to Thursday Night Live and the (Lexington) Farmers’ Market,” LeGris said. Thursday Night Live is a Thursday evening concert held during the warmer months. The farmers market operates on Saturday mornings in the pavilion. Frazier said he hopes they will have money to pay deputies into November when the city is set to host the Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 4-5.