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Budget: Covington in "Historic Position to Write Own Future"

"The city is in a historic position right now to write its own future," said Covington city manager Larry Klein during the presentation of his recommended 2013-14 budget. "What we're saying with this budget is, let's choose a path and follow it. We may not have another opportunity like this in a generation."

Tuesday night's presentation was starkly different from the presented budgets of the previous two years that included cuts to public safety, reorganization of city departments, and the elimination of jobs. Public meetings at City Hall were often long, tense, and argumentative.

That was then. This is now.

Tuesday's presentation ended with applause.

Twice.

"I'm really excited about this budget," said finance director Bob Due. "It's a paradigm shift and a real opportunity."

While across the river in Cincinnati, the region's largest city is negotiating layoffs of employees, including police and fire workers, Covington is not only positioned to make overdue investments in its infrastructure and quality of life amenities, it will also add staff to its police and fire departments.

"This plan does not come at the expense of public safety," Klein said.

The police department would see its budget increased by more than $300,000 and five more officers added, increasing its total from 103 to 108.

The fire department will see a budget increase of more than $370,000. Twelve new fire recruits were approved for hire by the city commission moments after the budget presentation. Those recruits will begin training and are expected to be ready for work in time for the traditional summer retirement period in the department.

After multiple years of doom and gloom economic forecasts at Seventh & Madison, the proposed budget creates an optimistic and ambitious outlook for what the city's priorities should be moving forward. "This one is different than other budget presentations in the past," Due said. "We've reached that stability from a financial standpoint that we have to start planning for the future."

That future includes new sidewalks laid down by the city, "from South Covington to the Ohio River," Klein said, as well as new streets, equipment, a community "healthy living" center (paid for in part by the city with the majority coming from foundations. No location has been determined.), a skate park, a clean & green anti-litter campaign, and more.

The plan does not come without a cost to taxpayers. "I don't know how to pay for new sidewalks without money," Klein said, after suggesting that in August the city commission should approve both the compensating rate and a 4% increase on property taxes. The city manager argued that the city could handle the repair and replacement of sidewalks across town more quickly and more efficiently than the traditional route of leaving the task to property owners. By taking the property tax increase, he argued, there would be a revenue stream to continue the program beyond the proposed five year outlook presented Tuesday.

"The property tax rate has been the same for three years," Klein said. "If we took (the compensating rate and the 4% increase) your property tax would go up from last year but would still be less than three years ago."`

Other parts of the plan to finance the lofty goals laid forth in next year's budget include bonds, federal funds, and traditional extra revenue streams such as partnerships with Sanitation District 1 and the Drees Pavillion in Devou Park. In all, the plan calls for more than $71 million in capital improvement funding through 2018 with more than $26 million of that scheduled to be utilized in the next fiscal year.

The City of Covington issued a news release outlining the key areas where funding would go:

I.  Invest in Infrastructure (streets, sidewalks, levee maintenance, storm water control), Facilities & Recreation, Fleet and Equipment. Establish long-term funding and focus for the City's basic needs - approximately $52 M over the next five years to these categories, including long-term funding for renovating or rehabilitating the urban core, riverfront and other areas. Continue on the current path of adequate long-range and sustainable funding for significant infrastructure improvements. Accommodate the enormous demand for green space and recreational opportunities as a tool to attract residents, businesses and further investment. Keep the City safe and looking like a great place to live, work, play and invest.

II. Invest in Economic Development and Neighborhood Revitalization. Identify additional revenue streams through this investment and continue the City's current efforts to acquire and demolish foreclosed properties to remove blight from neighborhoods and to pave the way for new opportunities and new revenue sources.

III. Manage the City's past and present personnel obligations. Implement a classification and compensation plan for non-union employees and focus on meeting past financial obligations to the City's police and fire and non-uniformed employee pension funds, which are currently underfunded.

IV. Focus on replenishing the City's reserve fund. Introduce an aggressive focus on building a $1 M reserve in the FY14 budget after previous years' fund balances hovering below $500,000.  Currently, the general fund balance as a percentage % of revenue is less than 1%, compared to other cities like Paducah and Bowling Green possessing 35% and 34% respectively.

V. Invest in our Quality of Life. Improve the citizen, business and visitor experience and the quality-of-life considerations including City-wide beautification such as sidewalk and other public improvements. Lend support to community partners such as Keep Covington Beautiful and the volunteer Bicentennial Committee whose expertise , energy and reach can further implement improvements and promote our community.

 "The most important thing is that we keep a strong focus on the original vision of financial reinvestment that occurred when we depleted our reserves, and keep an eye on the long term goals of our City and remember that we never want to be in that place again," Klein said. "Our steadfast focus on financial reinvestment and proven self-discipline will allow us to deal with the day-to-day issues in a stable and supportive fiscal environment. Focus and fiscal discipline by the City Commission got us to this point of opportunity in the City, and the same virtues will help us achieve our vision."

Mayor Sherry Carran offered an approving comment about the presentation. "If we invest in our city, residents' investments also improve here," she said. "Hopefully with this budget, they will want to stay and the value of their homes will increase."

A first reading of the budget ordinance is scheduled for the City Commission meeting on June 11, also at 6:00 p.m. If any changes occur to the budget after first reading on June 11, a new first reading will occur on June 25; if no changes occur, a second reading will occur on June 27 at the Commission meeting.

"Focus and discipline got us to this point," Klein said with a tip of the cap to the previous city commission that had Mayor Chuck Scheper at the helm. "This plan might look to good to be true but it is true because of what previous commissions decided to do. This is a plan and not just sitting here wondering where to go month to month. Wouldn't it be great to deliver Covington to its third century with a plan like this?"

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News

Photo: Larry Klein and Bob Due present their proposed budget on Tuesday/RCN