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Kenton Conservation District Asks for Taxing Authority

The Kenton County Conservation District would became an independent taxing authority under a proposal pitched by member Marc Hult to the Kenton County Fiscal Court on Tuesday.

The conservation district is a part of the county government responsible for carrying out a comprehensive program to protect soil, water, and other natural resources. It works closely with national and state agencies.

Its seven members are elected in alternating cycles. The fact that its members are elected is one that Hult used to support his proposal. "If folks don't like what we do with their money, they can throw us out," Hult said. "That's in distinction to all the agencies in the county that have control over their own budget."

Currently, the Fiscal Court allocates an amount of money for the conservation district each budget year. For the past two years, that amount has been $105,000. The district had requested $149,000 and received more than $40,000 less than that.

Strapped for cash, the district continues on its mission to ensure sound land use activities, the prevention of soil erosion, water quality protection, and other environmental quality issues are given due consideration and priority in the management of the county's natural resources, according to its website.

Though its funds are limited, the district has managed to leverage them to secure federal funding in the millions of dollars in recent years, money that has been used towards the purchasing of properties in the Banklick Creek flood plain, among other things.

The district also received first round approval for $2.45 million through the federal Farm Bill for the creation of a riparian zone along the Ohio and Licking Rivers, one of only four Kentucky projects to make it past the pre-proposal stage. Final proposals are due next month.

"It's a lot more money than the $105,000 we get from the Fiscal Court," Hult said of the district's accomplishments. "That's the problem in a nutshell. We're underfunded for the work we're trying to accomplish."

Much of the budget goes towards staffing. Kenton, Campbell, and Boone Counties' conservation districts share staff members. One key staff person has been ill in recent weeks, adding even more stress to the operation.

So how much money would we be talking here?

Hult's suggestion that a millage on property would be the best recourse and that a responsible rate would be .002, meaning that a $100,000 home would pay $2 a year towards the conservation district. Most districts in Kentucky are funded this way, Hult said, and Kenton County is among the small few that are funded directly by their respective fiscal courts. Campbell is funded by a millage while Boone is not, said James Kreissl, secretary-treasurer of the Kenton Conservation District.

Hult noted that the agriculture extension's millage is set much higher, at .009. At .002, Kenton's district would raise about $149,000, or the amount it had requested from the Fiscal Court.

"In budget discussions we had at the time, it was made clear that members of the Fiscal Court were not going to support any new capital expenditures of any kind and we wanted the budgets brought in with reasonable numbers," Judge-Executive Steve Arlinghaus said. "If the Fiscal Court supports such a measure, I believe that would be a decision for the future Fiscal Court for the following year."

County Commissioner Kris Knochelmann will be Judge-Executive beginning in 2015. He called the district "an unsung hero" and said that it would be a discussion to be had later.
 
County Commissioner Beth Sewell was also complimentary of the district. "I hope as we begin another budget year that we are able to work with you more closely and have communication about your needs and what is required of us if we decide not to fund you at your level," Sewell said. "You all have done amazing work and deserve to be treated with that kind of respect at a funding level that is manageable for all of you."
 
"If you were to put us on a millage, that would free up $105,000 of your general fund," Hult said.
 
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News
 
Photo: Licking River between Covington and Newport as it flows toward the Ohio River/RCN file