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Marion County has a 'good team' in Frankfort

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Elected officials, lobbyist speak about budget, local projects and teamwork

By The Staff

Teamwork - that was the theme during Marion County Economic Development's First Friday Forum June 4. Marion County's very own "A-team" of sorts - State Rep. Terry Mills, State Sen. Jimmy Higdon and lobbyist Karen Thomas-Lentz - were on hand to speak about the state budget that was recently approved, which includes $32 million in projects for Marion County.

"We came out in really good shape," Thomas-Lentz said. "And I think the reason is... you're sitting in the perfect place right now. You have a Democratic representative that you really need to send back and you have a Republican senator. And then you have me that's just kind of out there stirring everything."

Thomas-Lentz is the first lobbyist Marion County and the City of Lebanon have ever hired to work on their behalf, and according to Marion County Economic Development Director Tom Lund, she's been a huge benefit to the community and its progress.

"She looks sweet and innocent... but up in Frankfort, she's a bulldog," Lund said.

According to Lund, Thomas-Lentz not only went to bat for Marion County during the state budget process, but also on other projects, including phase II of the Highway 68 project, a pilot project at the technical school, Enhanced 911, and other road and infrastructure projects. In fact, before Mills was officially sworn into office after the special election, Thomas-Lentz was already narrowing down priority projects for Marion County that needed to be included in the budget.

"This year you did need help to help organize it all," Thomas-Lentz said. "Terry came in and the budget was already pretty much written. The road plan was pretty much written. We had less than 24 hours to get road and sewer projects to House leaders."

But, she, Mills and Higdon worked perfectly as a team, she said.

What did not work perfectly; however, was the state budget process. The House and Senate failed to agree on a budget during this year's regular session, which ended April 15. After a six-day special session last month, the state's $17 billion budget and $4.45 billion two-year road plan was finally approved.

The budget includes 3.5 percent cuts to most state agencies in 2010-11 and another 1 percent cut on top of that in 2011-12. Education and several other programs took smaller cuts. However, a lean budget was expected with the state facing a revenue shortage of approximately $1.5 billion over the next two years. Not to mention, House and Senate leaders both rejected raising taxes or generating new revenue by legalizing expanded gambling.

But, according to Mills, neither one of those options would have been the answer to the state's financial woes.

"Nobody wants to raise taxes. That's off the table from the start," he said. "I don't want new taxes either. I don't believe in spending beyond your means either. So, this budget represents the good and the bad. But the important thing is that we have a budget and it's balanced."

Mills made reference to the recent school closures in the state of Indiana as an indication that legalizing expanded gambling may not be the answer for Kentucky's revenue shortfall.

"Indiana is closing schools," Mills said. "What does Indiana got? Casinos. Are casinos the answer?"

Mills encouraged the audience to hang in there and be positive.

And, according to Thomas-Lentz, Marion County has a lot to be positive about. Several projects are in the works, including finally acquiring Enhanced 911 services for the county.

"As you know we are one of the few communities that don't have that," she said. "What we're hoping to do is to jump a generation and go to Next Generation 911."

Next Generation 911 would allow callers to send text messages, videos or pictures from cell phones to emergency call centers.

If all goes well, Marion County will be one of the few counties out there that will be able to jump to Next Generation 911 services, but Thomas-Lentz said that the county is still six months to a year from completing that project.

Another big project is a pilot project at the Marion County Area Technology Center. In April, Lund and Kenny Marrett, a member of the Marion County Jobs Training Consortium, made a presentation to the Marion County Board of Education about enhancing curriculum and adding practicum courses at the tech center. Thomas-Lentz said she is working on finding funding sources for that project.

A smaller project that could make a big difference is installing a stoplight on the bypass at the intersection near The Hampton Inn. According to Higdon, he and the rest of the "team" worked diligently on getting that accomplished and it has been approved.

"We've been told as soon as the new budget starts - after July 1 - that will be one of the first projects completed," Higdon said.

And, according to Higdon, no matter how big or small the project, it's working together as a team that has the biggest impact.

"All of us pulling together and in the same direction - those are the communities that get things done," he said. "We do a very good job of all working together."

Keeping the team together is also very important, Higdon said, and he encouraged everyone to support Mills during the November election.

"We need to get him re-elected," Higdon said. "We do make a good team. I will support Terry. I need everyone here to support Terry."