Lexington mayoral candidates field questions about poverty

mayoral debate focuses on poverty issues

amead@herald-leader.comOctober 27, 2010 

Vice Mayor Jim Gray, left, and Mayor Jim Newberry took part in a debate at the Mitchell Fine Arts Building at Transylvania University.

MARK ASHLEY — Mark Ashley

After months of the candidates for mayor of Lexington saying the same things at forum after forum, Tuesday night's offering presented a new set of questions.

And, when the candidates tried to argue about issues that were off target, they were herded back in line by a friendly but stern preacher.

The forum at Transylvania University was put on by the Child Care Council of Kentucky and the Community Action Council.

The questions involved issues of concern to the 17.6 percent of Lexington residents who live below the federal poverty line.

What, the Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper asked, could the local government do about increasing the budgets for child care programs, which have been shrinking despite a greater recession-driven need?

"What we can do is be more aggressive perhaps," Vice Mayor Jim Gray said. "Become better advocates with our legislators."

Kemper tried restating the question for Mayor Jim Newberry: What can the local government do?

"What we are going to have to do on the local level is be an advocate for those causes, utilizing all of the resources in the state," Newberry said.

Kemper, who is the retired executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, tried a different tack:

It costs $7,000 a year to raise an infant in Lexington, she said. Low-income families with more than one child face impossible costs.

Could some of the extra money the city expects to get from selling more recycled cans, bottles and paper be considered "found money" to help those people with housing costs?

Newberry, answering first, was not encouraging.

"If we're going to see that kind of increase in our recycling revenue, we're going to have to make some investments in our recycling operations," he said. Paying for more recycling equipment would offset any increase in income, he said.

A better idea, Newberry said, is an idea he has proposed for an affordable housing trust fund, to be paid for with money from the city's general fund and private sources.

Gray, in his answer, said the city should look for a creative solution.

"I don't think our traditional models of housing development are the models we should adopt," he said. "We should look at post-Katrina and what New Orleans has done."

Then Gray started talking about the recent reconstruction of South Limestone, the costs of which have been a major point of contention between the candidates in the last few days. Gray has run an ad suggesting there was something unseemly about the way the Newberry administration ran the project. Newberry has responded that Gray is a liar.

The responses were heading in that direction Tuesday night.

Newberry charged that Gray was being "borderline preposterous" for bringing it up. Gray said he was a builder who knew what he was talking about, and dismissed Newberry as "a trial lawyer" who didn't.

Kemper tried to put a stop to it.

"Let's not go there," she said. "We're talking about affordable housing."

Newberry kept talking about South Limestone.

"I'd like us not to go there tonight," Kemper said, more forcefully.

Then, to lighten the mood, she pointed to the stage, where questions and comments the sparse audience had posted on Twitter were appearing on a large screen.

While the candidates were going on about the street project, someone had come up with a funding source to help create more affordable housing: "a tax on political ads."

Reach Andy Mead at (859) 231-3319 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3319.

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