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Continued: City Commission Candidates Debate in Latonia

Six of the eight candidates vying for four seats on the Covington City Commission participated in a candidates forum at the American Legion Hall in Latonia last Wednesday. Part one of the coverage of this event covered issues ranging from Mayor Chuck Scheper's performance in office to the proposed Walgreen's that would require the razing of an historic building. You can read that piece here: Wide Ranging Issues Covered at Third City Commission Debate. Other issues explored during the forum are detailed below. (Candidates participating included Chuck Eilerman, incumbent Steve Frank, Greg Paeth, Michelle Williams, and write-in candidate Chip Terry. Candidates Neil Gilreath and Roger Hamilton did not attend.)

Question: What role can the city commission play in improving Covington's schools?

"I would work with the superintendent and the school board," said Mildred Rains. "That would be the first step."

"I think it is vital that the leadership of the city understand how important education is in the city," said Chip Terry. "I'm a lifelong learner. I've been in school since I got out of high school. It is vitally important that we lead by example, go out and mentor the children. We need to ask for higher standards and hold the children, hold the parents to higher standards."

"There needs to be a connection with the commission and the schools as far as things they need, the help they need to help our children," said Michelle Williams. "It's not the job of the commission to step on the school board. My place would be limited there. I would do as much as I can to help the school board."

"Our basic role is to work cooperatively," said Chuck Eilerman, who works with superintendent Lynda Jackson as part of the Covington Education Foundation and has been mentoring for six years. "We should have a positive, cooperative approach. There is a lot of cooperation and I think that's important going forward. It's unfortunate that there is some ugliness that has developed in the school board race. The schools are doing much better than is being portrayed in some quarters."

"We have the lowest ACT scores of anywhere nearby," said Steve Frank. "For $15,000 (per pupil) a year, we're getting 16.4 ACT scores. Compare that with neighboring cities. We're bringing up the rear, folks. For this town to come around we not only have to get the finances right-sized, we have to deal with the problems in the schools and the kids not learning. (The City, the school district, and the Housing Authority of Covington), "Without all three working together and being healthy, this town is never going to be on the right path."

"A critical thing for young couples is whether or not the school is system is any good for a piece of property they are looking at," said Greg Paeth. "In Northern Kentucky, it's "the Forts", Fort Mitchell and Fort Thomas because the systems are so good there. Covington is well aware of the shortcomings in the system and I think they're taking a number of steps to move in the right direction. In order to rebuild the city and the neighborhoods, we have to have a close collaboration between the city and the school system."

Question: What is your opinion of a rental inspection program and is it an invasion of privacy (for the tenants)?

"We have to make sure multifamilies are safe and well-maintained to prevent any safety issues," Terry said, noting that the fire department from which he retired in July, conducted such inspections on buildings that had three or more units. "It is imperative that we put a structure together that allows inspectors to do their jobs, keep individuals safe, and make sure they are up to code and not invade anyone's privacy."

Williams agreed with Terry. "A lot of properties that people live in are not suitable, they have a lot of code violations, are without smoke alarms," said Williams. "I think it's an excellent idea to get someone involved in doing rental inspections."

Eilerman also agreed. "If properly administered, it's an effective program for the safety of our citizens and structure of our city," Eilerman said.

"I know we tried to do a license fee for different landlords and it caused a lot of controversy," Frank said. "I'm not sure how this should get structured. Bedbugs are a big concern. There needs to be some work done. I think we can work out an aggressive relationship so this isn't overly intrusive. I think the tenants would welcome it."

Paeth said that he supports internal and external inspections of rental properties. "I think rebuilding the neighborhoods begins with tough housing code enforcement," said Paeth. "Landlords, I think, would have to be charged for these inspections. They may scream about that fact, but I would think we all know that's going to be passed anyway. We have to raise the bar with property in Covington. We have to be much more demanding from people who own property."

Rains, who directed the city's code enforcement department for five years, said that most of the complaints about properties came from tenants. "Homeowners aren't going to call and say, 'make me do some work', said Rains. "As far as being compassionate and being aggressive, there are times people can't get all the work done within thirty days. Give them time if they're working on it."

Question: What are your plans for the redevelopment of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Madison Avenue?

"My idea for (MLK) is where the unfortunate fire happened at the dry cleaners, do away with that whole row of houses and put in small businesses with apartments on top," said Williams. "I am sure there are plans around for that, too. It's a good srea to start on MLK. We have a number of vacant spaces that could be built up very well. Madison Avenue, we need to use our small business plan, implement it, move forward with it and get as many small businesses in there as possible."

Eilerman, who serves on the planning commission and the Linden Gateway small study group, said there are plans to see MLK as a grand street with vital new development along the edges. "It requires consistent follow-through from the city," Eilerman said. "There's a lot of property left over from the old lots (where buildings were moved or razed during MLK's expansion). We need to re-package some of those properties. St. Elizabeth (Hospital) is a major player down there and owns a lot of property. The other issue will be the redevelopment of the Bavarian Brewery." As for Madison, Eilerman served on the board of Renaissance Covington which he cites as having helped restore the Odd Fellows Hall following a devastating fire a decade ago. His family also owned Eilerman's department store at Pike & Madison. "Ultimately what we need there is Gateway (College's urban campus), the Convention Center expansion, and markets," but, "if there are no patrons with disposable income they become vacant again."

"There is a major development that is being planned and worked on now in the area known as Jackson Square (which borders MLK)," said Steve Frank. "A lot of new homes and life breathed back into that area. I've had long conversations with St. E and they may extend some of the medical campus on to MLK." As for Madison Avenue, "I'm trying to redevelop from the riverfront all the way up," Frank said, adding that he led the effort to save Covington's Fifth Street exit from Interstate 75 as the Brent Spence Bridge project entered its final design phase. "Businesses are looking to come in because our exits were saved." He also noted the effort to create a restaurant row around the successful Amerasia and Riverside Korean spots. 

"As far as the redevelopment goes along Twelfth Street (MLK), I live a block and a half away," Paeth said. "The really critical thing is that we get something going there, it's been vacant for a long time." And on Madison, "There's no magic wand that you can wave over Madison and get results quickly. It's incredibly challenging."

"A lot of work and a lot of time has gone into MLK and Madison Avenue," Rains said, "but I don't think you're going to get anything but small businesses down to that area. Also, you're going to have to keep working with these businesses. You can't put a business in place let them go. We need staff to keep up on that to help them prosper."

"I think the Center City Action Plan has a lot of great ideas that can be used in these areas," Terry said. "They are both mentioned in that plan and the importance of connectivity between those neighborhoods." Terry reiterated his small business pipeline idea that would emphasize the possibility of moving some existing businesses to MLK or Madison.

Question: What could the city do to improve the appearance and care of the riverfront?

"It's a complex question," Eilerman said. "I know the city and the Corps of Engineers and Southbank (Partners) and Vision 2015 have been working for some time on a program to stabilize the riverbank. Part of this will be addressed by the new trail system we hope to have in place and also by new development." Eilerman cited the pending reopenings of two floating restaurants, the Mike Fink and the Waterfront. "Part of the infrastructure being developed there in conjunction with the state will help provide stability."

"If we don't do something soon, it's not gonna be Riverside Drive, it's gonna be 'drive in the river'," Frank said, adding that he had met with the "chief dog" for the Ohio River at the Army Corps of Engineers. He anticipates that in order to the necessary repairs to the riverbank, it could be a $34-40 million job that would require federal assistance.

"Certainly, I've noticed some erosion on the riverbank but at this point, the one thing, it hasn't undermined Riverside Drive," Paeth said. 

"The city needs to get on the stick and get this on the calendar," Rains said. "I think it's been neglected and if it continues to just sit, it's going to erode. I think the city needs to make this one of their priorities."

Terry agreed that it should be a priority. "Start with cleaning up the weeds and getting the basic appearance taken care, then it will take involvement from state and federal government," Terry said. "I'd get (developer Corporex chief) Bill Butler involved. The biggest problem we have is just that it's not very well maintained. There's a dumpster in the parking lot, weeds all over the place, the appearance is not acceptable. The quick win is to clean it up."

"Everyone knows that I've been saying all along that we need to build the riverfront up and this is one I will take on personally," Williams said. "The Mike Fink reopening will be an asset down there. The city has to decide whether or not this is going to be an investment that we can take on. We could do all kinds of things down there on the river. We have a lot of people in Cincinnati walking around right now and if we light up Covington maybe we can get some of that business over here."

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