In the race for property valuation administrator of Fayette County, an unelected incumbent is squaring off against a former high-ranking member of the mayoral administration of Teresa Isaac.
Jay Whitehead, a Republican who was Isaac's chief administrative officer, is challenging Democratic incumbent David O'Neill, who scored a huge primary victory against former longtime PVA Renee True.
O'Neill's campaign is focused on his accomplishments since taking office in 2009: He says he has made the office more accessible to the public while trimming expenses.
Whitehead, meanwhile, is highlighting O'Neill's ties to Gov. Steve Beshear, and pledges to "stand up" to Beshear and others when they try to raise taxes. Whitehead also says his experience with the city has prepared him to manage undervalued employees and make them better public servants.
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The PVA — a $90,700 a year job — assesses the market value of buildings for tax purposes and compiles the county's property tax roll.
Since taking office, O'Neill said he has increased efficiency and accountability in the PVA office. He cites a 5.8 percent budget cut in fiscal year 2010 and a 8.1 percent cut this fiscal year, along with reducing the office's automobile fleet by nearly half. He also has listed all of the office's expenditures on the Internet.
O'Neill, the former Fayette County Democratic Party chairman, said his expertise in statistics management has helped him in the job. He is a former manager of the Thoroughbred racing information company Equibase.
Since being appointed by Beshear, O'Neill has worked the circuit of neighborhood association and homeowner association meetings, explaining how to understand how a house is valued, how to challenge a valuation and how houses in their neighborhoods are faring in property valuation.
In the May primary, O'Neill trounced True, receiving 19,032 votes to True's 7,459. Even O'Neill, who was appointed after True retired, said he was surprised by the large victory margin.
The primary campaign between O'Neill and True, who is now a registered Republican and uses her husband's last name of Harper, was not friendly. O'Neill mocked his opponent's posh car and house, and criticized her for retiring and then running for the same office, which would have allowed her to collect a salary and a pension at the same time, a practice known as double-dipping. He also highlighted the fact that True's mother, Linda Taulbee, worked in the PVA office.
"Voters have seen me in action for a year and a half," O'Neill said. "I've eliminated nepotism in the PVA office. I've stopped the double-dipping scam."
O'Neill acknowledged during the primary that he had previously struggled with drinking problems. In June 2005 he was accused of leaving the scene of an accident after striking an occupied vehicle and causing moderate to severe damage. He paid a $100 fine for failing to report a vehicle accident and another $100 for having no auto insurance.
O'Neill said he is a recovering alcoholic who hasn't had a drink in five years.
"I want people to know that they can get help and turn their life around," he said during the primary.
Whitehead hopes to be the first Republican PVA of Fayette County.
He intends to spend about $20,000 on the campaign and send out two mailers: The first shows Whitehead with his wife and son and includes the tagline: "We can do better than David O'Neill."
In that mailer, he says O'Neill won't question Beshear, who Whitehead says has implemented standards for valuating trucks, vans or SUVs that unfairly increased the taxable value of those vehicles by "millions of dollars" during the past year.
"The job of the PVA is to stand up for the citizens and tell the governor he is wrong," Whitehead says in his mailer.
Whitehead, who moved to Lexington from Tulsa, Okla., when he was 10, is a graduate of Tates Creek High School — he still wears his state football championship ring — and Transylvania University.
When Isaac named him chief administrative officer of the Urban County Government in 2006, then-Vice Mayor Mike Scanlon was brutally critical.
"Jay Whitehead is not qualified to be the chief administrative officer of a $260 million, 3,000-employee operation," Scanlon said. "He has no experience prior to his last 12 or 18 months in government. He has no training or education for this type of a job."
Whitehead says Scanlon's scathing remarks actually helped him.
"If I made a mark downtown, it was because of Mike Scanlon," he said. "I could have either melted when he attacked me or I could have made a mark."
Whitehead said his biggest accomplishment as CAO was "letting the employees understand how important they were, that they were an integral part of the system."
He hopes support from Isaac will help him make inroads with Democratic voters. Isaac has donated $500 to his campaign and is co-sponsoring one of its fund-raising events, he said.
Whitehead, who ran unsuccessfully against Ernie Fletcher for the Republican nomination in the 1998 6th Congressional District and against Stan Lee in the 2000 Republican primary for the 45th House District, says he's finally found his winning race.
"I'm running the right time, the right race, against the right person," Whitehead said.