GEORGETOWN — Money management is the focus of the upcoming mayoral primary races in Georgetown and Richmond, which have struggled to balance their budgets as employers closed or laid off workers.
In Richmond, Kentucky's sixth-largest city, an audit released this week showed a $3 million deficit for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2009, up from a $2 million deficit the year before. The city has an operating budget of $25 million.
The situation attracted the attention of State Auditor Crit Luallen and more than a few Richmond residents. It's also put incumbent Mayor Connie Lawson on the defensive as she faces two challengers, Jim Barnes and Ritchie Mesalam. Lawson said most voters realize that Richmond is not the only city that has had to go through a recession. She said the city relied on attrition to decrease its full-time employment by about 30 positions.
"When you're in city government, you can't just go in and hire and fire anybody you want to," Lawson said. "There are employees' rights, and if we had gone in and just started firing, I'd be in court until they buried me. We had to do it in orderly manner, and we did."
In Georgetown, Mayor Karen Tingle-Sames said the city has about $6 million less in revenue than a few years ago. But Georgetown had a balanced budget last year and the city has learned to live within its means, she said.
"I have had to make the tough decisions needed in these challenging economic times because protecting the taxpayers' money has been my top priority, and it will continue to be my top priority as we move this city forward," Tingle-Sames said.
Challenging Tingle-Sames on Tuesday are two others who were on the ballot four years ago: former mayor Everette Varney, and Al Catron, a retired Scott County Fire Department major. In 2006, Tingle-Sames was a council member running against two-term mayor Varney and Catron. Tingle-Sames won the November election, beating Varney by 84 votes.
Voters in two other Lexington-area cities, Paris and Winchester, will also winnow their field of non-partisan mayoral candidates to two on Tuesday.
As Tingle-Sames emphasizes the need for fiscal responsibility in government, detractors such as Varney and the Fraternal Order of Police focus on the city services they say have suffered under her leadership.
Earlier this week, FOP members stood in front of city hall on Main Street with signs in protest of Tingle-Sames, saying she has damaged public safety. The Royal Springs FOP Lodge No. 59 has not endorsed a candidate, but members said police officers are leaving because of poor pay and benefits and they are not being replaced.
Of the city's 51 authorized police officer positions, only 34 are filled.
FOP members said patrol vehicles are in such bad shape some have broken down and been towed during emergency runs.
Varney said he's concerned about Georgetown citizens' quality of life and safety because police protection has suffered too much. "It's certainly something that the next administration is going to have to address," he said.
But Tingle-Sames said some police positions have been filled and officers are still interested in working for Georgetown. She agrees that the next budget must provide money for new equipment and additional officers.
She said she has shown good leadership in managing money and making the most out of the city's resources.
"We live in really different economic times than we did four short years ago and we cannot repeat the mistakes of the past," she said.
Mayoral candidate Al Catron said he does not like the path to financial ruin that the city has been on for the past 11 years. He said it's time to "restore financial responsibility" and end "reckless spending and sweetheart deals."
Catron said it's been difficult for some city employees to recover from losing their jobs. "It's practically destroyed them and their families because most of them are unable to gain other employment," Catron said.
Barnes, a former city commissioner, said the city's budget problems date back to the years when he was on the commission from 2003 to 2006. He said the commission would borrow money from its reserve, which he warned then was not sustainable.
"I have to take some of the blame myself," Barnes said. "I was there, but I tried to stop it. You call anybody and ask them if Jim Barnes tried to warn them about what was going on, and I think 90 percent of the people will tell you that I did. That's the reason I got off the commission. I'm not going to stay on a sinking ship."
Mesalam said "getting the city out of the hole" is his No. 1 priority. He said the city must do a better job of collecting business license fees and occupational taxes.
"People are coming into town and setting up equipment but they're not paying a business license, not paying taxes," Mesalam said. "These people need to pay a license to do business in the city of Richmond."
Lawson said she agrees with Mesalam, but said the city is doing what it can to find any money it is owed.
In Paris, Mayor Mike Thornton, a two-term city commissioner who was appointed to the position after Mayor Don Kiser died from a heart attack in April 2009, said he wants to continue using a business approach to help government operate efficiently and reduce expenses.
Thornton owns Martin's Sanitation Service Inc. and Martin's Pipeline Inspection Inc. He said the city also needs to address drug problems in the town, and he would like to explore more opportunities for the city and county to share resources.
Thornton is running against Janet S. Patton, a three-term city commissioner, who has a history of supporting development in the city. She said the city became more balanced after a Wal-Mart came to town.
New to the Paris government scene is Neil Crump, 31, who works at Applebee's in Georgetown. He said his supporters are ready for a change and for someone who will help make Paris a better place to eat, shop and live. "It's been the same guys running the show there," he said.
In Winchester, Mayor Ed Burtner is being challenged by used car salesman Ralph Garrett Harrison and University of Kentucky philosophy teacher Clint Jones.
Burtner said the government has more work to do in building the economy and creating balanced, sustained growth. Burtner said he is working to create collaboration among the city, county and public and private sectors.
Harrison said change is needed to help families who are struggling for basic services.
Jones said he has ideas that will make the community better. For example, Winchester needs more "green activities" and should broaden the recycling program, he said.
Jones also challenged Burtner four years ago.