New film marks centennial of Kentucky Governor’s Mansion

January 11, 2014

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Gov. Steve Beshear and his wife, Jane, are shown on a video monitor in circa 1914 formal attire Jan. 5 during filming of a re-creation of the gala ball that opened the then-new Governor’s Mansion 100 years ago this month.  Members of Lexington Vintage Dance performed ballroom dances from the period. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

FRANKFORT — The Governor’s Mansion turns a century old this month, and preservationists have organized a bipartisan celebration to raise money to help keep “the people’s house” in good shape for another hundred years or more.

Events begin this week with the premiere of a film about the mansion’s role as both a temporary home for governors and a venue for public hospitality and economic development. The film is narrated by ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer, a Kentucky native.

A symposium about the mansion is planned Jan. 22. There will be a reception March 5 after festivities marking the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 march on Frankfort. And a Centennial Gala ball is planned June 7. For details and event tickets, go to: Governorsmansion.ky.gov.

The documentary, Kentucky Governor’s Mansion: A Century of Reflection, was produced by Lexington filmmaker Michael Breeding and paid for by Marion Forcht of Corbin and the Forcht Group. It premieres Jan. 15 at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort and Jan. 16 at the Kentucky Theatre in Lexington.

140105GovsMansion0022“I wanted the film to tell the inside story of what has gone on in that mansion over the years,” Breeding said. “There’s a lot of history and stories, and part of it is a restoration story.”

The film opens with a re-enactment of the ball Gov. James McCreary gave Jan. 20, 1914 to open the mansion. That scene was filmed last Sunday evening with a cast of amateur actors in period attire. They included Gov. Steve Beshear, his wife, Jane, and members of Lexington Vintage Dance.

The Beshears seemed to have as much fun as everyone else, dressing up in vintage clothing to “party” in front of cameras. “I guess it’s OK to be seen having makeup put on now that I don’t have to run for re-election,” the second-term governor joked.

The film includes interviews with the Beshears and 30 other former governors, their family members and mansion staff. The full interviews will be preserved at the Kentucky History Center.

I sat in on part of the interview with Steve Collins and Marla Collins Webb, children of Martha Layne Collins, Kentucky’s first and only female governor, 1983-87.

“We all worked together as a family,” Steve Collins said, noting that his father, dentist Bill Collins, handled his duties as Kentucky’s “first man” with good humor and hosted “varmint” dinners for outdoorsmen. “They even roasted a raccoon one time,” Collins recalled.

One memorable event was a lavish but secretive dinner Gov. Collins gave in 1986 for Toyota executives when she was trying to get the assembly plant for Georgetown. The secret got out to everyone in Frankfort when the event concluded with a fireworks show.

140112GovMansion-Stock0022McCreary, for whom McCreary County is named, was the first of 24 governors who have lived in the mansion. He also was the last to use a horse and buggy. The film recalls that his successor, Augustus O. Stanley, preferred a newfangled automobile. But the mansion’s location on a steep bluff east of the Capitol proved problematic.

One Sunday morning as the Stanleys were getting ready for church, a staff member brought the sedan to the mansion’s back door and left it running unattended. Within minutes, the car rolled backward over the cliff.

Stanley is said to have walked out, looked down at what was left of his car and stoically said, “There’s another $1,500 gone to hell.”

Mansion construction began in 1912 after the General Assembly appropriated $75,000 to replace the previous governor’s home, built in downtown Frankfort in 1798. Five years ago, the old mansion got a $1.5 million, privately financed renovation and is now used as a state guest house.

Architect brothers C.C. and E.A. Weber of Fort Thomas designed the new mansion in the Beaux-Arts style, mimicking the Petit Trianon villa at Versailles (France, not Kentucky). Clad in Bowling Green limestone, the 18,428-square-foot mansion came in $20,000 over budget, so landscaping was postponed for years to save money.

The mansion, decorated with a rotating collection of borrowed fine art, is one of only a few state governors’ homes regularly open for public tours. Because more than 12,000 people visit each year, the mansion gets a lot of wear and tear.

The first major renovation began in 1982 during Gov. John Y. Brown Jr.’s administration after a fire marshal declared the place unsafe. Phyllis George Brown raised private money for much of the work and elegant furnishings, as Glenna Fletcher did 25 years later when the mansion needed another updating.

Jane Beshear and David Buchta, state curator of historic properties, thought the centennial was a good opportunity to both celebrate the mansion and raise money for an endowment to help with upkeep. Their goal is to raise $1 million for the non-profit Kentucky Executive Mansions Foundation before the Beshears move out.

Mike Duncan and Terry McBrayer, Kentuckians who have held top jobs in the national Republican and Democratic parties, co-chair the Mansion Centennial Celebration Committee.

Among its fundraising efforts is the “county seats” project. Each county is being asked to give at least $1,000 toward 120 new ballroom dining chairs that are being made by student artisans at Berea College. So far, Buchta said, nearly half the state’s counties have agreed to contribute.

“This is so much more than the governor’s house,” said Ann Evans, the mansion’s executive director. “It has become an important tool for economic development, tourism and just making people feel welcome in Kentucky.”

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Sylvia Lovely tries for a comeback after KLC scandal

December 11, 2010

After taking some hard falls — both professionally and physically — Sylvia Lovely is trying for a comeback.

Lovely retired a year ago as director of the Kentucky League of Cities following a scathing state auditor’s report about spending practices, alleged conflicts of interest and board oversight of the organization. The auditor’s review was prompted by a Herald-Leader investigation.

Then, last summer, Lovely suffered a series of medical problems, including a broken hip. She now walks with a cane, but is as feisty as ever.

Lovely, 60, is speaking to groups and consulting on community issues around the country. She serves on Morehead State University’s Board of Regents and is raising money for research into ovarian cancer, which killed her mother.

She also has formed a consulting firm, Sylvia Lovely & Associates, and is trying to market her services to help executives and organizations manage “reputational risk.” Basically, she wants to advise them on how to avoid what happened to her.

Second acts have become common — even celebrated — in American culture. Celebrities, politicians and public figures fall hard amid scandal, only to rise again and reinvent themselves after some degree of repentance.

After looking at the Web site of Lovely’s new firm — SylviaLovely.com — I was curious to know more about what lessons she learned from her experience, because she has said little about it until recently.

“Was I perfect? Did I run a perfect organization? No,” she said in an interview, adding that neither the newspaper articles nor the auditor’s report told the full story. “I should have spoken out sooner.”

Lovely remains proud of her work at KLC. During her 20 years as executive director, the organization grew from a small association of Kentucky cities into a politically powerful force with a profitable municipal insurance unit.

State Auditor Crit Luallen didn’t question KLC’s performance, but she criticized its high executive salaries and perks, its spending and executives’ conflicts of interest. Those included $1.4 million in legal fees paid to a law firm whose partners include Lovely’s husband, Bernard, and $28,600 in business with a restaurant that he partly owns. The auditor also criticized KLC’s board, made up mostly of mayors, for poor oversight.

Lovely said she will advise clients to have written governance policies, review them annually and consider how things that make sense to them might look to outsiders. That wasn’t done nearly as well as it should have been at KLC, and Lovely said she accepts much of the blame for that.

But Lovely, whose salary was $330,000 last year, defended KLC’s executive pay as being in line with private insurance competitors. She said KLC board members were aware of the alleged conflicts of interest the auditor noted and didn’t object.

Lovely’s biggest disagreement with her critics is about what standards KLC should have been held to — as a government organization or as a private trade association — and whether those standards and expectations were clear and well-defined.

“Maybe we were too complex, but I did not operate it as a government,” she said. “I ran it like a business, and we were successful. I performed under the rules I was given.”

The auditor said KLC should be viewed as a part of government because, among other things, its insurance products are bought by cities with public money and its employees are part of the state retirement system.

The auditor’s report noted that Lovely is eligible for an annual state pension of more than $165,000, based on 22 years of service and an extra five years’ worth of benefits she purchased with a perk from KLC — a $125,000 forgivable loan.

The governmental status of KLC and the Kentucky Association of Counties, whose spending and salaries also were criticized by the auditor following another Herald-Leader investigation, were later confirmed by the General Assembly. Legislation approved overwhelmingly last year made that clear.

But Lovely thinks it should still be up for discussion. “We never really had that debate,” she said.

As she seeks a new career helping others avoid risk to their reputations, Lovely said she isn’t worried about restoring her own. “I think people are smart enough to see shades of gray,” she said. “And I think there were a lot of shades of gray with this stuff.”

I suspect Lovely will find an audience of executives who fear that what happened to her could also happen to them. With the economy weak, unemployment high and average people feeling the pinch, there is little public tolerance for free-spending, highly paid executives in either public or private organizations.

“The rules are changing,” Lovely noted. And many people think it is long overdue.

I wish Lovely well in her comeback. But it may be hard for her to succeed in this second act until she fully appreciates why the first one ended as it did.


It never seems to be a good time for tax reform

December 14, 2009

Gov. Steve Beshear says this isn’t a good time for comprehensive tax reform.

It wasn’t a good time in 2002, when economist William Fox’s report to the General Assembly showed how Kentucky’s tax structure was no longer keeping pace with changes in the economy or the state’s needs. And it hasn’t been a good time in any year since then.

Politically, it never will be a good time for comprehensive tax reform. But with Beshear’s slots campaign coming up lemons and the General Assembly facing one of the worst slash-and-burn budgets in memory, it’s at least time to begin discussing it seriously.

Reps. Bill Farmer, R- Lexington, and Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, have offered visions for what comprehensive tax reform could look like from different ends of the ideological spectrum. They were promised a hearing between legislative sessions. It didn’t happen.

Farmer would eliminate the state income tax and lower the sales tax slightly by taxing services as well as goods. Wayne would tax some services, mostly those used by wealthy people, and make the income tax system more progressive, like the federal system, taxing the rich more than the poor.

My guess is lawmakers eventually will look at some hybrid of the two. But such a plan can’t be “revenue neutral,” at least in the long run.

While public money can always be spent more wisely, the reality is Kentucky needs to invest more in education, infrastructure and social services to move up from the bottom of national rankings of income and quality of life.

Broadening the sales tax to services could make a big difference because of growth in the service economy. Kentucky also should clean up its hodgepodge of special-interest sales tax exemptions. For example: There’s a sales tax on horse feed but not cattle feed.

For state spending to remain at current levels through June 2012, lawmakers would have to find $1.9 billion in revenue or cuts. The state can cover some of that shortfall with $485 million in one-time federal stimulus money. That still leaves a $705 million gap, which means cuts are coming.

But before lawmakers bring out their axes, they should use scalpels.

The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce issued a report recently called The Leaky Bucket that highlights three areas where state spending has gotten out of whack in the past decade.

By far the biggest of those areas is public employee health care, where state spending is up 174 percent compared with an overall state budget increase of 33 percent. The state now pays $1.2 billion a year to insure active state employees, retirees and teachers — 12 percent of the total state general fund.

The Chamber thinks the state could better manage its costs with more emphasis on wellness and disease prevention. “Reasonable changes” could free almost $200 million for the 2010-12 state budgets, it says.

Those changes include having state employees pay a portion of their health insurance premium — say $50 a month — as most private sector workers must do. That would save the state $94 million a year.

The other two “leaky bucket” targets were prisons and Medicaid, the federal-state program that pays for health care for more than 745,000 low-income Kentuckians.

Corrections spending rose 44 percent in the past decade as Kentucky had the nation’s fastest-growing prison population. The Chamber outlines several ways that spending could be cut without lawmakers being accused of being “soft on crime.”

Kentucky’s Medicaid spending has grown twice as fast as total state spending, and the Chamber recommended looking to other states for “best practices” and shifting more spending to wellness programs.

When lawmakers return to Frankfort in January, they must plug some holes in the leaky bucket . But they also need to get serious about creating a new bucket, one big enough to meet Kentucky’s needs.


Government efficiency: Bigger not better

May 7, 2009

It is conventional wisdom among many Kentuckians that consolidating some of our 120 counties would lead to more efficient government and less costs to taxpayers.

After all, the idea seems so logical.

But here’s an interesting article from Daily Yonder editor Bill Bishop, a former Herald-Leader columnist, whose research challenges that notion.  It’s worth reading and talking about.