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Ken Rechtin's Another Voice: Deja Vu All Over Again at Sanitation District

Do you ever just feel that NKY is just like the 1993 movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray? Every day is the same as the day before. 

Or maybe it is better described by paraphrasing Yogi Berra who said: Living in NKY “is like déjà vu all over again.”

One year ago, NKY went through the very same painful exercise regarding SD1. At that time, I was a Campbell County Commissioner and the following is what I said at the meeting during which the Campbell County Fiscal Court was to consider a Sanitation District 1 (SD1) requested rate increase:

“Dumping sewage from a chamber pot out onto the sidewalk or into the gutter is no longer an acceptable way to dispose of our excrement. As a society we have evolved and accepted that it is a function of government for the safety, health and well-being of our citizens to have a common system of gathering, purifying and assuring the public that their wastes do not damage others.

It has been determined that there should be some standards under which we should comply. As a nation we have come to the conclusion that the environment in which we live should be reasonably protected from harm. That environment includes the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, swim in and recreate and fish in and the soil in which we grow our food stuffs. 

There should be discussions on how stringent these standards should be. There should be discussions on how much of our resources we should set aside for compliance to these standards. But, we should all recognize that we live in a community and we all share these Commonwealth assets which we should protect for ourselves and for our future generations.

So, how do we address this issue as a region called Northern Kentucky? In 1946 the Kentucky Department of Health established SD1. Over the years the mission of SD1 has evolved along with our society’s expectations of what clean water and clean soil means. 

Over the years the Federal government through the Congress has enacted legislation filled with expectations for clean water, clean air and clean soils. In 1995 under the request of the governing bodies of the cities, SD1 took over ownership and maintenance responsibilities for the sanitary sewer systems in many of our cities and counties. As a community, our expectations of SD1 evolved. 

In 2003, again as requested by the elected leadership of Northern Kentucky, SD1 began a regional storm water management program.

As SD1 grew, evolved and expanded to include many of these new services, for the most part the governance of SD1 did not change.

SD1 is governed by a citizen Board of Directors, consisting of eight Directors, who serve four-year staggered terms. County representation is based on the populations of the three counties which comprise SD1. Four Directors are appointed by the Kenton County Judge/Executive, two are appointed by the Campbell County Judge/Executive and two are appointed by the Boone County Judge/Executive.

In the past, the budget and the rates as suggested by SD1’s Board were ratified by the three Judge Executives of Boone, Campbell and Kenton Counties. Over the last two years, the JE’s approved rates increases of 15% each year. The three fiscal courts were not involved in this process at all.

Now, due to recent legislation, a rate increase of anything greater than 5% requires the approval of two of the three fiscal courts. Expecting a rate increase greater than 5%, the SD1 Board and staff held an “orientation” meeting for the three fiscal courts on April 30 of this year in order to acquaint the fiscal courts of the impending rate request or either 9 or 17%.

Now before us comes legislation approving a rate increase of 9%. In only 36 days, the fiscal courts are expected to be completely oriented to the function, the needs and the operations of SD1 and to approve a 9% increase in rates. 

First of all, I wish to commend the Board of SD1 on their prior and continuing governance of the agency. I also wish to commend the staff of SD1 on their efforts to “bring the fiscal courts up to speed” on all the needs and issues facing the agency at one meeting on April 30th.  But, even with all these efforts and with all their willingness to help us understand the agency, the complexity of the issue is daunting and not easily understood in such a short time frame.

One of the pieces of information that I requested, which was not received, was a historic perspective (last 10 years) of the budget of the Operations and Maintenance versus the budget of Capital Improvements. I had hoped with the receipt of this information I could establish that the agency had gone through many of the cost efficiency methods that other local governments had. I had hoped to be able to see that the agency had completed many cost saving and expense reduction projects. This information was not forthcoming. 

What was received was the combined budgets of Operations & Management and Capital Improvements over the last years. At the April 30 meeting, the budgets were presented as separate lines! All I wanted to see was the prior years presented in the same fashion.

This is not to say that this information is not available and cannot be presented to us, but to only say that there is much more analytical work to be done before, I could ever approve a significant rate increase like 9%.

This process also speaks to a flaw within the current approval system and governance structures of SD1. 

It has been and is my contention that the electorate has entrusted their “elected” officials (emphasis on the word “elected”) with the right and obligation to, when necessary, tax and place fees on them so that the functioning of government service is not interrupted and is appropriately funded. It is for this reason that I have argued for many years that the officials appointed to these boards and commissions should be elected officials, particularly, in the case of the governing board of SD1, the fiscal court members in the three counties.

My vote on the 9% rate increase is no. 

Additionally, I have three recommendations to the three JE’s:

1. Allow and approve a 5% rate increase for the coming fiscal year. 

2. Require that SD1 find the needed cost reductions within the annual O & M budget to allow the needed capital improvements to continue.   

3. Convene a blue ribbon task force made up of all the members of the three fiscal courts to review the operations, funding and governance structures of the SD1. 

The charge given to this task force would be to make a recommendation on the governance structures appropriate for SD1. The timeframe for reporting back to community would be four months from convening the task force. Funding for any required studies would come from the SD1 funds. Enabling legislation would be crafted prior to the end of this calendar year so that, if needed, it could be enacted by the General Assembly or the Fiscal Courts before the neat fiscal year, July 1. (This is a quick turnaround, but very needed!)

There is a better way! And we need to find it!”

That is what I said one year ago. Now it is “déjà vu all over again”. NKY finds itself in the same situation. Nothing has changed. 

The governance structure is still broken. I refer here to an article in The River City News. At the most recent meeting of the three JE’s (Judges/Executive of Boone, Kenton and Campbell Counties) set to approve the budget and rates of SD1. The two JE’s who were present (Campbell Co.'s Steve Pendery and Kenton Co.'s Kris Knochelmann) differed in their approach. JE Pendery wanted a 5% rate increase (exactly the same rate increase requested by his newest appointment). JE Knochelmann wanted to approve the recommendation of the SD1 Board which had zero rate increase. But, JE Knochelmann wanted to remake the budget so that certain line items in the budget were changed.

How does it make sense to have only two elected officials make a determination on rates and budgets for a $90 million agency, after the SD1 Board of Directors (made up of appointments by the JEs) gave them their recommendations? This is the board that attends the meetings, is knowledgeable of the agency’s operations and studies the issues of our agency. 

What do you think of recommendations that I made last year?  Click here.

The views and opinions expressed here in “Another Voice” do not reflect the views or opinions of The River City News, its owners, writers, or editors. These are solely the ideas of Ken Rechtin. If you wish to make comment to Another Voice, Ken can be reached via email at [email protected] or you may leave a comment here. All rights to use of Another Voice in any fashion are retained by Ken Rechtin. Please contact him for any use of his columns.