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Chapter Three:
Next Up for Owensboro and Daviess County: A New Narrative That Stokes the Fires of Innovation

by Keith Schneider
October 17, 2011

Still, Big Problems Defy Solutions

That’s not to say that the city and county don’t have big and unyielding problems. A view of those challenges include these trends impeding the community’s goal of improving the lives of its residents:

  • Though jobless rates are going down, thousands of adults are not working. Poverty rates have soared. A new report from the U.S. Census finds that the percentage of children in poverty in Daviess County increased to 28 percent last year, from 16 percent in 2000.
  • Long-term pension obligations are rising for public agencies. Pension payments for Daviess County Public School teachers will rise from 0.5 percent of the budget for teachers salaries this year, to 3.0 percent by 2016, or $1.1 million annually, according to county school figures. The total budget for salaries and other expenses for county public schools in 2011/2012 is $105 million.
  • Despite cutting 30 full-time jobs from the city payroll since 2003, Owensboro’s long-term pension obligations also are climbing about $500,000 annually, according to city figures. In the current 2011/2012 fiscal year, city pension contributions to a state-managed fund will reach $4.43 million, 11.1 percent of the city’s $39.76 million budget, or more than twice the pension contribution in 1988-1989.

One emerging problem. Pension costs are rising for government agencies in Owensboro and Daviess County.

By 2018, the pension costs to the city are projected to reach $7.75 million, or nearly 15 percent of the projected $52 million city budget. Bill Parrish, the city manager, asserts that the downtown development projects will attract businesses and jobs, and that rising tax revenue should cover increased pension costs without increasing taxes. Other authorities who have studied pension costs and the budget predict city taxes could rise as soon as 2013. The city has joined other local governments in lobbying the state Legislature to adjust the formula for the state-managed pension fund to reduce the rate of increase in pension payments in order to avoid tax hikes.

Owensboro and Daviess County also confront a health crisis with significant economic ramifications.

  • A recent national study found that while the city and county rank high among Kentucky communities in accessibility to clinical care, and social and economic conditions, the area also ranks 88th among Kentucky’s 120 counties in the quality of its physical environment.
  • An earlier 2004 state study of the region’s collective health found that Owensboro ranks poorly among Kentucky counties for rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. More than two-thirds of Daviess County’s adults are overweight or obese, and nearly 40 percent of children also are overweight or obese.

Rates of drug use are on the rise, say City Police Chief Glenn Skeens and Daviess County Sheriff Keith Cain and are reflected in rising number of arrests for possession and distribution of methamphetamine. The consequences, they say, for family stability and school performance are severe:

  • Rates of teen pregnancy, for instance, are high and rising, according to health department data.
  • Drug use also makes it more difficult for Owensboro to increase the number of adults who graduate from high school and attend a two- or four-year college.
  • U.S. Census figures show that less than two in ten people over the age of 25 in Daviess County are college graduates, a rate considerably lower than the national college graduate rate of nearly four adults in ten. And this is occurring in a city that has four institutions of higher learning and more than 8,000 students.

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Recommendations for More Success

  1. Undertake a New Community Strategic Plan – A new strategic planning initiative is needed to propel the city and county to the next stage of its progress as a center of opportunity.
  2. Cultivate and Recruit Women to Serve as Elected and Appointed Leaders – Almost 52 percent of Daviess County’s adults are women and that percentage is not reflected in elected positions in the city or county governments.
  3. Strengthen Internal and External Marketing and Communications – More focused outreach is vital to show citizens why a publicly-funded program of education, downtown development, and innovation makes sense in strengthening the economy over the next generation.
  4. Establish a Joint City-County Office of the Ombudsman – Thin out the cross-cutting permitting process while also providing the fairness and access that citizens expect.
  5. Establish and Fund the Owensboro Promise – Provide every graduate of the six Owensboro, Daviess County, and Catholic high schools scholarships for tuition and fees to attend a two- or four-year college in or outside Kentucky.
  6. Establish the Owensboro Top 20 Young Achievers Program – Provide the most talented young adults the chance to be part of Owensboro’s future and to stay connected.
  7. Foster Local Foods and Develop More Recreational Infrastructure – Healthier cities note their success as a marketing advan- tage in promotional campaigns.
  8. Generate More Diversity in Civic Life and Improve Business – Recruit investment and development capital from Asia, and especially from China.
  9. Promote New and Cleaner Energy Sources – Owensboro’s city-owned utility should serve as an innova- tor in carbon reduction technology, conservation, effi- ciency, solar development and other cutting edge thinking about energy production and consumption.
  10. Strengthen Transportation Hubs, Build a Streetcar Line – Owensboro’s opportunities over the next two decades are significant in air, ground, and river transportation.
  11. Put a Brake On Sprawl – Replace the love affair with big surface parking lots with a marriage to homes and businesses, recreation, and education infrastructure that is reachable on foot, on a bike, public transit, or a very short car ride.
  12. Promote Events and Bluegrass Music – Design and develop a new music center that houses the International Bluegrass Music Museum.
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