David O'Neill's impressive performance in almost two years as Fayette County property valuation administrator has earned him election on Nov. 2.
The Republican challenger, Jay Whitehead, is also capable and genuinely committed to public service. He was Lexington's public works commissioner and chief administrative officer during the Isaac administration and has worked in government at the state and federal levels.
But O'Neill's record of improving PVA operations while cutting waste is hard to argue against.
Whitehead says he's the better candidate because O'Neill, a Democratic Party activist, was chosen by Gov. Steve Beshear. The governor appointed O'Neill when the office became vacant in January 2009.
Whitehead faults O'Neill and Beshear for this year's unusual rise in property taxes on SUVs and light trucks and points to O'Neill's record of driving violations as evidence that he is unworthy for office.
Whitehead's criticism of the vehicle tax is off base. The value of SUVs and light trucks dived with the demand for them in 2008 when gasoline prices spiked above $4. In 2009, gas prices dropped while demand for used vehicles soared because of sluggish new car sales and Cash for Clunkers. This pushed SUV values higher than the previous year.
State law mandates that PVAs assess vehicles according to a prescribed manual; since at least 1998 the prescribed manual has been that of the National Automobile Dealers Association.
Whitehead's criticism of assessments based on long-time standards and his promise to "stand up" against tax increases reveal an unsettling tendency to play politics with an office that should be administrative and technical.
While the work is technical, the responsibilities are important. Schools and local services depend on property taxes. If property isn't accurately and uniformly assessed, some people end up paying more than their fair share to make up for others' illegitimate breaks.
In his 22 months as PVA, O'Neill has upgraded technology. He introduced aerial photography to improve assessments previously based on drive-by observations. He sold five of the offices' 11 vehicles and plowed the savings into technological upgrades and spending cuts to help the city through its budget crunch.
O'Neill arrived in office with very useful experience, having managed Equibase, Thoroughbred racing's official database.
Since becoming PVA, he has made the office more user friendly. He's found and is still seeking better ways to inform senior citizens about homestead exemptions. He's also met with scores of neighborhood groups to explain property valuation and how to challenge an assessment.
O'Neill did receive a few traffic citations, including speeding and not having insurance, in the 1990s. In 2005 he was cited for leaving the scene of an accident that he had caused. He paid a fine for disregarding a traffic control device on Woodland Avenue and not wearing seat belts in October 2008.
O'Neill has been very open about having had a drinking problem and says he has been sober since 2005.
On balance, though, any faults he might have behind the wheel do not justify turning out someone who's already proven himself a very competent PVA.
The unendorsed candidate may submit a 250-word response by noon Friday.