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City Commission Candidates Make Their Cases in First Debate

Six of the eight candidates running for Covington City Commission appeared Monday night at Ninth Street Baptist Church in the Eastside in the first of what will be three debates or forums leading up to November's election. The sole incumbent seeking reelection to one of the four seats on the commission, Steve Frank, was joined by former Commissioner Mildred Rains, first-time candidates Chuck Eilerman, Greg Paeth, Michelle Williams, and recently retired firefighter and write-in candidate Chip Terry. Candidates Neil Gilreath and Roger Hamilton did not attend.
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The format called for an opening statement, two questions from the audience answered by each candidate, four minutes of direct questioning from the moderator to each candidate, one question from each candidate to the other candidates, and then finally closing statements. The event was sponsored by OASIS, Inc and moderated by Michael Monks of The River City News (see comment at end of post).
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Is the City's financial condition really as gloomy as it often seems at commission meetings? That question from audience member Jerry Avery, also a member of the Covington School Board, got things rolling. Commissioner Frank, who is nearing the end of his first two-year term, accused previous administrations of balancing the budget by ignoring infrastructure costs in order to make payroll. "We've built up a $35 million deficit in infrastructure maintenance," Frank said before warning that the City's pension obligation could be more than $100 million.
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Other candidates gave credit to Mayor Chuck Scheper and the current city commission for its work on the City's financial troubles. "If we presume that all the numbers we've heard about from the city commission over the last six months are accurate and that we are in dire financial straits, a lot of the heavy lifting has been done," said Greg Paeth, former longtime President of the Old Seminary Square Neighborhood Association, noting that he is also not in agreement with all the methods used to stave off financial worries. "Certainly code enforcement is an issue with me. I believe the way we grow the city is by improving the neighborhoods, get tough and aggressive and dilligent in enforcing every regulation on the books so new property owners don't come in and become incredibly disappointed when someone next to them buys the house and lets it go downhill." Paeth also expressed concern over the reduction of a nickel on every hundred dollars worth of payroll tax at the same time the commission did not approve the compensating tax rate increase on property.
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"It's not unique to us," said Chuck Eilerman, a commercial real estate agent, of the financial worries in Covington. "Covington was not uniquely poorly managed. We're seeing this problem across the country." He noted that the pension system is largely controlled by the state and mostly out of the hands of the local governments and suggested that the best way to improve the financial situation is to "grow our way out of this."
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"We've had nineteen studies recently and a study to study the studies to develop the city," said Chip Terry, the former assistant fire chief. "A simple fireman can figure out if you don't have revenue you have to cut spending. The Center City Action Plan is a wonderful document with which we can improve the city and do it quickly and now is the time to act. We have to move forward with something."
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"You have to clean up the City of Covington before you ever attract business," said Mildred Rains, the longtime housing inspector and code enforcement department head. "We need an economic development director who knows what they're doing."
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"I wouldn't necessarily agree with all the cuts that had to be made, but I'm looking at ways to generate funds," said Michelle Williams, a board member at OASIS, Inc. I know cutting things is a way to save money but we need to look at ways to generate funds in the city so we don't have to cut social services and so our police and fire departments don't have to be cut."
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Reaction to Management Partners report
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A second question from the audience sparked accusations from Rains that the recently concluded Management Partners report, in which the Cincinnati-based consulting firm reviewed each department at City Hall and made recommendations on how to improve efficiencies, may have been influenced by the City Manager and the commission. "Was it truly just the Management Partners or was it tweaked by the mayor, the (city) manager, and the commission? That would be my question," Rains said. "Is it truly the city or did someone help them along?" Rains was particularly angry at the recent decision to change the way code enforcement is operated, including the dismissal of its director and the use of part-time employees. 
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Steve Frank defended the Management Partners report. "On June 30 we'd have been bouncing everybody's paychecks had we not acted," he said. "There was only a little amount of time because of the situation the city found itself in." Frank did not support the premise of the question, from resident Teri Meyer, that suggested there may have been a less than forthright process in which the way the report was conducted. "We did budget roadshows, we were out in the community, we interviewed department heads. The commission did not just accept everything on a blank slate. We'd have privatived EMS if we did. It's not like we just swallowed everything they gave us. Some folks were just never gonna be happy with any cut."
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Other candidates agreed that the public process of discussuing the report could have been handled better. "I was actively involved in all the meetings where Management Partners' report was displayed and the community was not informed as to all the information that the city had," said Williams. "We had slideshows and screenplays but really, if that's what they were using to base their decision on then I would have to question that. For them to make decisions and ask for public input without us having al the input I felt was a little wrong."
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"When people have questions about transparency I think that brings into question the system," said Terry. "I don't want to infer that anything untoward was done. I disagree with a lot of the findings, especially in regards to the fire department. We need to spend more time getting more input from the public and brining stakeholders directly affected by these decisions into play."
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"I just wonder hwy every meeting has to be preceded by an executive session at four o'clock on a day of a six o'clock meeting," Paeth said. "I just think the process, the format of the meeting should be opened up a bit in sich a way that you can really welcome public input from citizens who can take the time to come down there at six o'clock on a Tuesday and have something to say. I think the way it's structured now, all the decisions have been made."
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"We need to be articulated more effectively with more material to the citizens." said Eilerman. "In large part (at commission meetings), our city clerk reads the resolution and someone seconds it and the commission members give speeches about whatever's on their mind and they vote and there we go. I hope there will be much more discussion and things will be given more time to air." Eilerman also suggested that the city manager be more involved in the meetings, leading the discussions.
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Direct questioning from the moderator
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Steve Frank has a well-known history of heated public exchanges with Covington firefighters and often points out that very few of them live in the city. "Out of 115 in the fire department, eight of them live here," he said again Monday night. "You don't have quite the same stake in a town when you don't live in it." Asked how much a new firefighter or police officer should be paid, Frank responded, "Enough to keep them in their seats. Pay has become an end in itself. In private business you offer people enough money to attract a candidate that will fill that job in a way that you expect them to work. The premise is not to get the largest package but government is different."
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Asked about his previous role as a board member at Renaissance Covington, a non-profit organization housed at City Hall and charged with promoting and helping to revitalize Downtown, Chuck Eilerman said the group was successful, pointing out that Renaissance played a significant role by way of a half-million grant to have the Odd Fellows Hall restored after it was severely damaged by fire. 
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Greg Paeth was asked about his role on the board of the Urban Partnership which hopes to initiate the Business Improvement District, a program in which Downtown commercial property owners would agree to tax themselves an additional fee to pay for promotions, maintenance, and other benefits. Paeth is confident that we will see a BID in Covington.
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Michelle Williams, whose Eastside neighborhood will soon see new residents living in the River's Edge at Eastside Pointe development, wants to see changes at the Housing Authority of Covington which is developing the mixed-income apartment community. "I've been dealing with HAC for a while, not just on this project but all the housing projects in Covington, she said. "I think there's a lot of issues that need to be addressed, a lot of secrecy. People are not always informed as to what their plans are." Williams said that she supports a change in leadership at HAC.
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Though his former union recently ended a lengthy contract battle with the city that saw both sides end up in court, Chip Terry thinks he could be a bridge between the public employees and City Hall. As a fireman, "my focus was to protect the citizens of Covington, that's your job," he said. "As a commissioner my job will be expanded, so I have a responsibility to make sure the citizens are taken care of. We have to take the whole city into account. The firefighters support me now, not because I'm a mouthpiece or member of the union. They respect that I am there for them." Terry added that he hopes to grow the revenue base in order to fill the lost positions in the fire department due to budget cuts.
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For more on the candidate debate, including their candidate-to-candidate question session, and their opening and closing statements, check back at RCN later Tuesday.
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NOTE: This article is written by Michael Monks who moderated Monday night's debate.
 

Comments

Wew really appreciated the candidates for coming and presenting themselves. We look forward to the next three events hosted by OASIS, Inc. The mayoral candidates on October 8 will be open to the public beginning with a reception at 5:30 and the debate starting at 6:30 PM.
On October 15 we will have the State Senate candidates in the same time frame.
On October 18 we have the school board candidates presenting their ideas about Covington Schools.
All events are free to the pubic and will be recorded for airing on Insight Cable channels 15 and/or 16 before the end of the month for oyur viewing pleasure.
An informed voter is a better voter.