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At Uniquely Covington Kickoff of Fall Campaign Season, IRS Emerges as Key Issue

In a uniquely Covington event, candidates for mayor, city commission, and board of education took to a literal stump on Sunday afternoon to make their case to voters.

The Wallace Woods Corn Roast takes place each election cycle and attracts candidates looking to get an early jump on messaging as the fall campaign season kicks off.

Christopher Gastright, president of the Wallace Woods Neighborhood Association, welcomed the event to his home on Wallace Avenue this year. He promised candidates a safer, sturdier stump this year. "That stump over there," Gastright said, pointing to one used previously, "almost killed (Kenton County Commissioner) Jon Draud."

City arborists provided the new stump, Gastright said. "Otherwise, I'd have had to buy another new stump on Craiglist. Stumps on Craigslist can be sketchy."

Though the event is a mostly light, summertime gathering with grilled foods, drinks, and chit chat, it's often the first chance voters get to hear the messaging that will play out over the ensuing weeks that lead up to Election Day. The battle for Covington mayor has been quiet since the May primary, when challenger Joe Meyer bested incumbent Sherry Carran, 47 to 40 percent, and eliminating two lesser candidates to set up a one-on-one autumn showdown.

So, what would their message be as they took to the stump in Wallace Woods on Sunday in front of a few dozen spectators?

Firm, but cautious, it turns out. Neither candidate threw any bombs or landed any significant punches, but the direction the candidates will likely take their message was on display. Meyer will argue that good things are happening in the city, but uncertainty like that created by the IRS's elimination of more than 1,600 jobs from Covington by 2019, will require an experienced hand - one that he claims to offer after decades in Frankfort. Carran will argue that her leadership has resulted in new energy that has created a booming downtown - and that the course should be stayed.

But it's not all rosy in Covington, Meyer will argue. "We have some major issues to deal with," Meyer said, speaking first from the stump. He cited a concentration of homelessness, poverty, and low-income housing in the city. "These are all factors we need to come to terms with."

He credited Wallace Woods for "dealing with some of them in a practical way", a nod to the neighborhood's efforts to get the city to conduct a small area study and to place a moratorium on new social service agencies opening nearby. Meyer said he will look to successful operations in Louisville and Lexington to reduce homelessness. "We're growing homelessness," he said of Covington.

"I want our city to address these issues in an organized, systemic, and knowledgeable way so we can lay the foundation for the next 30 to 40 years of our growth," Meyer said.

And then, "This has been a painful week for Covington."

How will the city deal with the forthcoming job losses brought on by the shocking announcement from the IRS? "That's ten percent of the jobs in Covington today that will be lost," said Meyer, a state representative from 1982-88 and a state senator from 1989-96, before serving as secretary of education and workforce development under Governor Steve Beshear.

There will be an impact on surrounding businesses, Meyer stated, not to mention the drain on the city's payroll tax revenue, its main source of funds. "We can't grow services that our people want without growth in jobs," he said.

To replace the payroll tax lost with the departure of the IRS, property tax revenue would need to be increased by 25 percent, Meyer said. "That's not competitive. Those who say this is a great opportunity and that we're gonna hit the ground running in three or four years are engaged in politics, just pure political speechmaking," Meyer said. "I've been through this process before in closing down buildings and having them declared surplus. It takes three to five years after the property is vacated before it can be awarded to the next property owner."

There's no guarantee Covington will control the site, he argued, and no guarantee that development would happen there, saying the site would be in direct competition with Ovation in Newport, a large swath of riverfront land that has sat dormant for a decade, but appears to be nearing development with the expansion of Kentucky Route 9.

The IRS's news will be a "significant hardship for our community for the next ten to twenty years, and we should not kid ourselves about that," Meyer said. "The question for this election is what is the better choice, who is the better choice to lead this city during these troubled times." Meyer cited his credentials, claiming a role in luring Fidelity Investments and creating the Northern Kentucky Convention Center in Covington, and Newport on the Levee. He did not list these accomplishments "to brag," he said, "but to say I have the experiences and I would to offer them to make our community grow."

Carran followed on the stump, and read from notes, "because it's hard to stay on time."

She said her 2012 election was hard, and that all elections are hard, but that this one "is probably a little more difficult."

"There is a nasty element that I'm seeing that's being instilled in this race that I haven't seen in a very long time and that's hard to counter sometimes," Carran said. "We try to stay positive and focused, but that makes it difficult."

She was able to quote her opponent: "As Joe said, there's been a lot of wind at our sails."

"One of the things you see right now is young energy and people who are engaged in the community and we talk about walkability and quality of life, those are things I have been focused on way before I was involved on commission."
 
Carran was first elected to the city commission in 2006 and was reelected twice before winning the 2012 race for mayor.
 
Though the news of the IRS departure hurts, Carran cited positive jobs announcements in recent weeks, including more than 500 headed to RiverCenter when CTI Clinical Services relocates there from Blue Ash, Ohio, and the addition of more than 100 jobs when Huntington Bank relocates them from Crestview Hills. Property values are up, she said, and people want homes in Covington.
 
It all really got going, she said, when the Hotel Covington project was announced in 2012. The $21.5 million redevelopment of the old Coppin's department store and City Hall will open at the end of the month. "Ever since then it's been nonstop with people wanting to invest in Covington."
 
"During my time as mayor, not only does the city have a vision but it has the wherewithal to become a reality," Carran said. "We work with people and Covington is open to new ideas."
 
There have also been investments in public services, the mayor argued. The three public unions representing police, fire, and other government workers have endorsed Meyer, but Carran said that 35 new police cruisers were just purchases, along with the hiring of 10 new police officers, and the process is underway to increase the base pay to make the department more competitive in the region. A new ladder truck, pumper, and ambulances are on the way to the fire department. 
 
She also noted the city's success in finally landing not one, but two residents on the board of Sanitation District 1, and the changes to the city's code enforcement department. She said 150 code cases were heard at City Hall two years ago, but that the number has more than doubled - to 350 - this year. "And those cases are being resolved, and we have a rental inspection program holding landlords accountable."
 
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