Mayor Jim Gray and challenger Anthany Beatty sparred Wednesday night over public utilities and public safety.
Gray accused Beatty of being soft on Kentucky American Water because he had accepted campaign donations from its political action committee. Meanwhile, Beatty said Gray has repeatedly said that he has not cut public safety during his first term in office, yet in 2010 asked the police and fire departments for $5.3 million in savings and did not provide money for new police or firefighter recruit classes.
Wednesday night's forum was sponsored and broadcast by WVLK and was held at the Lexington Downtown Arts Center. The debate was one of a dozen joint appearances between Gray and Beatty before the Nov. 4 election.
Gray became animated during questions about the city's role in dealing with utility companies. The city's franchise agreement with Kentucky American Water will be up for negotiation in 2015.
"I believe it is our duty to vigorously negotiate," Gray said. Gray said that he opposed the building of a new water plant along the Kentucky River in Owen County in 2010 that raised water rates but is not running at capacity. Kentucky American Water also refused to continue to bill and collect for water services, which has cost the city millions of dollars.
Beatty said he believes that the city has to look out for ratepayers, but he said he wanted a good relationship with the water company.
"I want to have a working relationship, so when we get to the contract table we have established some kind of working relationship about where we are going and what the expectations are," Beatty said.
Gray said it's clear why Beatty wants to work with the water company.
"I say this with courtesy but also with conviction: I can understand why he would say that, because he has received a $1,000 contribution from the water company's PAC (political action committee)," Gray said. "The (water company) is trying to expand on the backs of our ratepayers, and I don't think that's right."
The Kentucky American Water PAC gave $1,000 to Beatty in April, according to campaign finance reports.
Beatty retorted that he did not appreciate Gray questioning his motives.
"I do not appreciate ... impugning my character or my integrity because I accepted from a donor," Beatty said. "I am a man, I can stand on my own. I can make my own decisions."
Gray later said that none of it was personal. In business and in government, sometimes fighting for what's right means not always getting along, he said.
"Collaboration and being nice doesn't always get the job done," Gray said. "We have to be vigorous at the table. These public utilities are the closest thing to monopolies we have in America today."
Beatty said he would be forceful at the negotiating table but at the same time work with and listen to people. He's not soft, Beatty said.
Beatty, an administrator for the University of Kentucky and a former Lexington police chief, also questioned Gray's repeated assertion that he hasn't cut public safety. Gray has said he has increased spending on public safety by $25 million over the past three years.
Gray is telling only half the story, Beatty said. During lean financial times, the city did not have money to replace retiring police officers and firefighters.
"Four months after he became mayor he announced that there would be no new hires in police and fire. He asked them to cut $5.6 million from their budgets, in addition to the $3.1 million that he already had asked to be cut," Beatty said. Although Lexington's population has grown over the past seven years, the number of police officers has decreased, Beatty said.
"He's playing catch-up," Beatty said of the recent hires in police and fire.
But Gray said to have a police force of 700, the city would need an additional $15 million. Beatty did not say Wednesday exactly how many police officers he thought were needed.
"What services would you cut, or what taxes would you raise?" Gray said.
Gray has claimed to have saved the city more than $60 million through changes to pensions and employee health insurance. Money to pay for those police officers could come from some of those savings, Beatty said.