Fayette County

Old, new Lexington PVAs want job again

David O'Neill, Fayette County Property Valuation Administrator.
David O'Neill, Fayette County Property Valuation Administrator. Lexington Herald-Leader

The race for Fayette County property valuation administrator is more lively than it has been since the 1980s. It's also more confusing.

Both candidates in the Democratic primary for PVA are asking voters to return them to the office. David O'Neill is the current PVA, but campaign literature for former PVA Renee True identifies her as "property valuation administrator" and asks voters to "re-elect" her.

True vacated the office 17 months ago after serving as PVA for 16 years. The move allowed her to take advantage of a lucrative retirement benefit for state workers before it expired. If True wins back her old post, taxpayers will simultaneously pay her salary and help fund the state pension she began collecting last year.

"She should cease and desist immediately from using the title of property valuation administrator," O'Neill said. "This is beyond just misleading and questionable campaign tactics."

True said she used the PVA title below her signature on a flyer inadvertently. "It was an oversight and was discovered after the brochures were delivered," she said in an e-mail. "We then researched and found that it is common practice for candidates to use the title of the office they are running for."

She called O'Neill's objections "a campaign ploy. ... Desperate people do desperate things."

O'Neill, the former Fayette County Democratic Party chairman, was appointed by Gov. Steve Beshear last year to complete True's term. Beshear chose O'Neill over True and her husband, William Harper, who both sought the appointment only weeks after True's retirement.

True called her retirement "a very quick and difficult decision to make" and said she's had "a very humbling number of requests for me to return to the office."

O'Neill said her effort to retake the office should be offensive to voters.

"In this time, when so many people are out of work and the governor talking about the effects of not having a budget, and she wants the salaries that are intended for two different people. ... It's just unfair," he said.

Both candidates said they want to make the office more customer-service oriented and have no ambitions for higher elective office. From there, the two split sharply on how the office — charged with assessing the market value of buildings for tax purposes and compiling the county's property tax roll — can improve its performance.

Recovering alcoholic

O'Neill, 43, said he has brought more sophisticated technology to the PVA's office while trimming expenses and getting rid of five cars in the 11-car PVA fleet. He said he has talked to about 45 Lexington neighborhood associations about property assessments and has expertise in statistics management, noting that he is a former manager of the Thoroughbred racing information company Equibase.

"I've waited for a long time to make a transition into public service," said O'Neill, a recovering alcoholic who said he hasn't had a drink in five years.

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 fine for having no auto insurance.

"I want people to know that they can get help and turn their life around," O'Neill said.

But after only a year on the job, he probably faces a major deficit in name recognition when compared to True. After all, Lexingtonians have been electing Renee True or her former husband, Rene True, to the PVA office since 1985.

To help counter True's name recognition, O'Neill has raised $53,246, compared with $17,547 for True as of April 16, according to filings with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.

The winner of the primary will face Republican Jay Whitehead, the chief administrative officer of Lexington under former Mayor Teresa Isaac, in the fall.

Double dipping

True, 48, acknowledges the lucrative retirement benefit played a role in her retirement but said she also wanted to spend more time with her four children.

She was one of more than 5,000 state workers who were eligible in 2008 for a "27 and out" retirement. The program allowed them to figure pension benefits on the average of their three highest salary years, rather than the usual five, and have their years of service multiplied by 2.2, rather than a smaller number, to determine the percentage of average salary they would receive as a pension.

She disputed accusations by O'Neill of "double dipping," the practice under which Kentucky state employees intentionally retire, begin drawing their pensions, then return to state jobs.

She argued that electing her would actually save taxpayers money. Because she's already being paid a pension, there will be no need to pay the benefits portion of her salary, which she said would be about $15,000 a year.

O'Neill disputed True's salary math, saying that his base salary of about $90,000 is less than what True would receive. True countered that she would receive the same salary O'Neill does.

She also claimed a depth of experience that no one else can match: "I will serve the public well and am definitely the most qualified candidate."

While in office, True said she took the PVA office from zero computers to being fully networked and created a Web site that provides free access to the certified tax roll.

O'Neill, who has held the job since March 2009, said a fresh set of eyes overseeing the office has been beneficial to Fayette homeowners. Based on the efficiencies he has created in the PVA's office, "I'm a bargain," he said.

Among other things, O'Neill said he implemented at 5.8 percent budget cut in the current fiscal year, eliminated cell phone and cable TV charges, and began listing all expenses of the office on the PVA Web site.

Both candidates said they'll be responsive to the concerns of neighborhoods about property assessments.

"Education and experience and qualified professionalism should be the issues in this race," True said. "... I am not a politician. I am a public servant.

Ethics inquiry

True, who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Democrat Steve Henry in 2007, said she's no longer interested in other political offices.

She also pledged to abide by all ethical regulations. True was among 11 PVAs from around the state who were the target of a YEAR Executive Branch Ethics Commission investigation for employing relatives. True's mother, Linda Taulbee, worked in the PVA office.

State conflict of interest rules prohibit public servants from hiring, promoting or supervising family members. But a Franklin Circuit Court judge ruled last year that the ethics commission did not have the authority to bring ethics charges against PVAs. The case is now before the state Court of Appeals.

True still chafes at the ethics investigation: "At the time I hired her she was the most qualified individual," she said of her mother. "She worked an honest day for honest pay."