RICHMOND — The nonpartisan primary election for Richmond mayor boils down to one key issue: the city budget.
With an operating budget of $25 million, Kentucky's sixth-largest city took a hit as revenues shrank when employers closed or laid off workers. An audit released this week showed the city had a $3 million deficit for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2009, up from a $2 million deficit the year before.
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.
The top two vote-getters in Tuesday's election will face off in the November general election.
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."
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 'em 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 (for) 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 she said the city is doing what it can to find any money it is owed.