Candidate participation was poor but attendance was high at a Tuesday night forum for Whitesburg’s three mayoral and 10 city council candidates.
The candidates who did participate spent nearly an hour answering questions submitted in advance as well as several that were asked by audience members.
Whitesburg Mayor James Wiley Craft and challenger Jason Griffith both answered questions asked of them under the forum format. Councilman Tom Sexton also attended, but was called out on a work-related emergency.
The third mayoral candidate, David Narramore, declined to participate. Council candidates Eddie Bentley, Sheila Shortt, Mike Enfusse, James Bates, Cody Sexton, Robin Bowen Watco, Earlene Williams, Derek Barto, John Cunniff, and Larry Eldridge also did not participate.
The forum, sponsored by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and held on the Whitesburg campus of Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, was structured so that each candidate had 10 minutes to answer several questions submitted in advance and then each candidate answered questions submitted in writing from the audience. Citizens Carrie Carter and Ryan Adams moderated the forum and the candidates were respectful and allowed each other to complete their answers without interruption. Craft and Griffith were in general agree- agreement on several issues, although there was some differences in details. The main disagreement was over the issue of the city’s payroll tax.
Although the payroll tax was not one of the questions submitted in advance, it was mentioned in questions that came from the audience. One question concerned the possibility of taxing employers as well as employees. Mayor Craft explained that business owners already pay a city business tax and that the payroll tax only applies to people working in the city. Craft said tough times demand tough decisions and added that the current economic situation in Whitesburg has certainly demanded tough decisions.
“I don’t mind making them,” said Craft. “I have made them.”
Griffith is band director at Letcher County Central High School and music minister at the Whitesburg Methodist Church. He said he believes the payroll tax was mostly set up to pay a court-ordered settlement with Veolia Water, which began operating the city’s water and sewer systems before Craft became mayor, and that by having paid his water bill during the time he has lived in Whitesburg, he is taxed twice by having to pay the payroll tax. Griffith lived in Ohio before moving to Whitesburg and served on a city council there. He said he would like to see the tax reduced after the Veolia debt is paid.
Other questions concerned opportunities for young people, help for small businesses, water quality, the farmer’s market, and tourism. Griffith said he is very interested in developing small business. He said that if he is elected he will visit businesses in Lexington and other cities in an attempt to lure them to Whitesburg. He said the relatively inexpensive property here, compared with that in larger cities, and the possibility of other incentives would lure businesses to the city. Griffith also said he hopes to develop businesses to provide jobs to keep young people in the city and opposes high taxes on business.
“ I don’t believe taxes grow communities,” said Griffith. “I believe business leaders grow them best.”
Griffith also said he would work with the East Kentucky Leadership Foundation to get business leaders recognized and added that while businesses are there to make money, recognition and pride will help to drive business as well.
Mayor Craft, who was reared in Letcher County and has worked in Whitesburg as an attorney for most of his career, said he supports revitalizing small business as well, and added that he currently participates in a downtown merchants committee that was started by Kae Fisher, the owner of the Railroad Street Mercantile. Craft also said he supports the farmer’s market, pointing out that the city council signed on early as the fiscal agent for the market under his direction.
Craft added that he plans to build a permanent structure for the vendors to present their produce to the public at the end of the city parking lot where the market has been held for the last two years. Craft said he has watched the people who run the market have to set up their tents and take them down and wants to build a permanent structure that is expandable to grow with the market.
Craft also pointed to a cooperative effort with Mc- Donald’s and Wendy’s to allow them to get people into the workforce. He said that while the wages aren’t high, it does present an opportunity for a job and helps to create a work ethic for people out of work.
Griffith agreed with the importance of the farmer’s market and small business and said he and his family shop at the farmer’s market regularly. He said one way to make the farmer’s market grow is to encourage people to shop locally.
Griffith said he is not satisfied with the quality of the city’s water and does not like the taste. He said he knows that most of the pollution that has troubled the system is manmade and that water is one of the necessities of life. He said the city needs to find a way to make the water quality better and asked people in the audience if they drank tap water. Some held their hands up to indicate that they did and others did not.
Mayor Craft said that while the taste may not please everyone, the city’s water supply is safe. He said the water is tested daily at the water plant and is sent to a testing agency in Owensboro weekly, and if there is any sign that the water is not safe the plant is shut down immediately. He added that the state also monitors water quality in Whitesburg and other cities, and pointed to a new intake system that draws water from lower in the Kentucky River so that manmade pollutants will pass over the intake without getting into the city plant.
Both men agreed that tourism is a priority, with Craft saying he believes it is the future of the city. The mayor pointed to ongoing efforts to promote tourism and said it is important to keep the city attractive to draw both tourists and small business in. He said that during the recent Mountain Heritage Festival, he heard a number of compliments on the cleanliness and beauty of the city. Craft also said that if he is re-elected, he intends to create a Whitesburg Tourism Council that will focus on tourism within the city.
Griffith agreed that tourism is important to the future of the city and said he was particularly pleased that at the Mountain Heritage Festival all the vendors were local groups. He said it makes a big impact on a local group to be able to raise funds at the festival.
Another question submitted from the audience concerned working with the county government to make the entire county better. Craft said all of his efforts will be directed toward Whitesburg, and that while he feels that relations between the city and county are important, the council and mayor must serve the people who pay the taxes, and that he will direct all his efforts toward the city. Griffith agreed, saying that the county’s budget is considerably larger than the city’s and while he believes they should work together on overlapping issues, the mayor must serve the city as well.
Both men finished by thanking the audience and KFTC, and Craft urged everyone to vote.
Jim Webb, who lives on Pine Mountain, suggested that the names of every candidate who declined to participate in the forum be entered into the public record.