End of an Era: Reflecting on Wilkerson’s time as Bowling Green mayor

Bruce Wilkerson is a name often brought up when discussing Bowling Green, Kentucky. He’s been an important figure in the community for decades, having spent 20 years at the Bowling Green Police Department, 18 years with Sheldon Enterprises and — most importantly — the past nine years as the city’s longest-serving mayor. He’s protected Bowling Green from crime, managed multiple businesses in the community, and guided the city through numerous changes since being sworn in as mayor in 2011. 

After nearly a decade holding that title, Bowling Green’s leader is leaving City Hall for good. Wilkerson, who filed to run for reelection back in January, announced Sept. 1 that he had scratched his name from the ballot and would no longer be running, stating recurring health conditions as the reason. Wilkerson will serve out his term, which expires at the end of the year, but will not be Bowling Green’s mayor in 2021. 

“There’s been so much happen to Bowling Green in the past nine years,” said City Commissioner Sue Parrigin, who has held the role since 2015. “Lots has changed since Mayor Wilkerson took over. I’ve worked with him, and I have the upmost respect for him. I’ve watched him serve with integrity, honesty, the highest level of ethics, and he always puts Bowling Green first before anything else. I’ve never saw Mayor Wilkerson try to shine the limelight on himself; it was always about the city and what we could do best for the city, which to me has been just a breath of fresh air. I have a lot of respect for the mayor, and I’ve really learned a lot working with him.” 

Wilkerson, who was elected mayor after serving as a city commissioner from 2007-11, has been a part of numerous projects and initiatives that have helped spearhead Bowling Green into becoming the fastest growing city in the state of Kentucky. 

In 2013, Wilkerson and his staff launched a new neighborhood association website to make the community better protected and implemented a new in-car camera and video system for the Bowling Green Police Department’s cruisers. In 2016, the hiring process was restructured for BGPD resulting in a 40% increase in minority hiring and new batting cages were constructed at Pedigo Park for the area’s youth baseball players to use for practice. In 2018, the city’s revenues increased by 8.2% for all funds and 6.8% for the general fund, and the operating budget reflected an increase of only 2.9% for all funds and 4.7% for the general fund. In 2019, the city put a primary focus on improving its roadways and paved 16.7 miles of roads, constructed over 4,600 feet of new sidewalk and widened Smallhouse Road from two to three lanes. 

While all of those projects and initiatives improved Bowling Green, one of the main highlights from Wilkerson’s mayoral term is that he and the city never imposed a local tax increase — and 2019 marked the 17th consecutive year that hasn’t happened. 

“17 years — so his whole tenure — we have not increased taxes in the City of Bowling Green. That’s incredible,” Parrigin said. “We even had a decrease in our property tax. We have been the fastest growing community in the state of Kentucky for about the past seven years. That’s a testament to the quality of life in Bowling Green. 

“People don’t flock to communities that don’t have opportunities or quality of life types of things. People want to come to Bowling Green — they do. Bowling Green has been growing, and we’ve been managing the growth very, very well under the leadership of Mayor Wilkerson.”

Another city commissioner — Joe Denning, a longtime fixture in the city government who has been a commissioner for a total of 25 years and was mayor from Feb.-Nov. 2011 — also mentioned how important it was that Wilkerson didn’t impose a single tax increase in his near decade in office. He also discussed how important it was to have a mayor with the financial background of Wilkerson’s. 

“There’s been no tax increase during his tenure, and when you look back at it, there has been a number of jobs that he has been a part of bringing into the Bowling Green community,” Denning said. “He was in the finance business prior to becoming mayor, and it has worked well for him in the mayor’s position for the City of Bowling Green.”

Looking at the city’s annual operating budgets for the nine years under Wilkerson’s direction, the annual budget for fiscal year 2020-2021 was estimated at approximately $98 million with a near-$4 million deficit countered with reserves utilized — a drop from the $104 million estimated budget for the 2019-2020 fiscal year. At the midway point of Wilkerson’s tenure in 2016-2017, the estimated budget for the fiscal year was nearly $93 million, with a $4 million deficit countered with reserves utilized. 

Throughout Wilkerson’s nine years as mayor, the average estimated budget was $94 million, and the nine estimated budgets were never below $80 million and never exceeded $104 million. 

“His tenure, in my opinion, has been an excellent tenure. I put his tenure up there with one or two others that I’ve had the opportunity in my many, many years of serving with,” Denning said. “Bruce is very attentive to the issues at hand. He studies very hard, and when he speaks on behalf of the City of Bowling Green, he knows what he’s talking about. He doesn’t miss many things.”

Once Wilkerson’s tenure comes to a close at the end of the year, one of three candidates running to replace him — Todd Alcott, who Wilkerson endorsed following his decision to not run for reelection, or write-in candidates Tom Morris and Chris Page — will succeed him as Bowling Green’s 42nd mayor. 

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