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Judge-Executive Candidates Answer Questions at Tea Party Forum

The candidates for Kenton County Judge-Executive and County Commission shared the stage at Dixie Heights High School on Tuesday night to answer questions at a forum hosted by the Kenton County Tea Party.

(Editor's note: Highlights from the county commission candidates' session will be published at The River City News later, both on the homepage and linked within this article)

Incumbent Judge-Executive Steve Arlinghaus is being challenged in the Republican primary by current County Commissioner Kris Knochelmann. The two have fiercely disagreed on many issues over the past three-plus years and several of those issues have become staples of the campaign trail, including governance at the CVG Airport Board and how each thinks the county should combat the widespread heroin epidemic.

On Tuesday night, a series of questions were posed to Arlinghaus and Knochelmann. Each was given a limited amount of time to respond and were not permitted to engage or rebut one another.

Despite that, the disagreements between the two run deep and were also on stage Tuesday. Numbers even receive differing interpretations.

Arlinghaus has touted his turning around of a $2.2 million annual budget deficit to a $5.8 million surplus while Knochelmann discounts that claim, arguing that the county was in the best fiscal health in its history as Arlinghaus took over in 2010.

"There was not a problem to fix four years ago. We left in 2010, the fiscal court, in its strongest position," said Knochelmann, who was first elected to represent District 3 in 2006. He concedes, however, that the county had not been and is not currently operating with a balanced budget. "Every year I've been involved in the fiscal court, we have never had a balanced budget. It wasn't then. It isn't now. The county gets away with having reserves and saying that's your balanced budget."

"We've increased spending each year since I've been on this fiscal court," Knochelmann said of the past three-plus years. "I think the debate is, once we look at our expenditures, where can we save money? The judge-executive sets the budget and the fiscal court has to vote on it in full, not in part. Running a business, you have to start with a balanced budget and you can do that but we have to start with a mindset of being honest and upfront and not being political about it and try to spin it."

Knochelmann has targeted Arlinghaus's use of numbers and recently called the Judge-Executive's claims about too much overtime money being spent in 2010 at the county jail as "Arlinghaus math".

On Tuesday, Arlinghaus came armed with certified documents from the county treasurer's office to back up his numbers.

"We had a $2.2 million deficit spending budget. Those are facts," Arlinghaus said. "But to clarify that, in fairness, much of that was the result of the new jail being built, so there's a debt service that had to be covered."

Arlinghaus said that the previous Judge-Executive and county commissioners acknowledged the budget deficit but insisted that the roughly $10 million gained by the county through the sale of Rosedale Manor would cover it. 

"The bottom line is, I saw that as selling our assets to pay for every day living expenses, so I took it upon myself to say, we cannot do this. I made a lot of cuts and a lot of changes," Arlinghaus said. He said that he dramatically reduced overtime spending at the jail and nearly brought the county golf course to breaking even from a half million dollar deficit.

How to combat the heroin epidemic has also caused contention on the campaign trail to the county's highest office.

Arlinghaus supports a regional approach currently in development at the Northern Kentucky Area Development District which would oversee a plan that helps fight heroin in all eight of the Northern Kentucky counties served by NKADD. Knochelmann has suggested tapping into the county's reserves to increase the number of treatment beds in the county, now.

"I recognized the heroin issue probably well over two years ago, closer to three years ago," said Arlinghaus who lost a niece to an overdose just a month before taking office. "It helped to set the stage for me to get involved."

The Judge-Executive said four months into office he convened a meeting with the different social service agencies and asked them all to come together but found that they were all taking different approaches. "Nobody seemed to have a regional plan, a plan we could all hang our hat on, that we could all move forward with," he said.
 
Arlinghaus recommends sticking with the NKADD regional approach. "I'm saying let's be patient and focus on this regionally. The bottom line is, this problem exists in the Northern Kentucky AD District, all eight counties. Every county needs to be a part of it."
 
Knochelmann said that he agreed with most of what Arlinghaus said about the issue but, "We just differ on how to go about it".
 
"I want to see Kenton County take more of a leadership role than previously existed," Knochelmann said. "We all know it's a scary issue but it ultimately is going to come down to what the community is going to do to support those on the day to day fight against addiction and sadness."
 
"I'm going to continue with my direction of having good conversations. We're going to set the tone here to make sure this ends in our county long-term. It's very critical. It's affecting businesses. We've dealt with it in our family, in our business, with our neighbors."
 
"Kenton County in this situation has got to take a leadership role," Knochelmann continued. "We need to do something quicker and not wait around for others to do it."
 
While a regional approach to fighting heroin is underway, Northern Kentucky is not known for its unity or common voice, particularly in Frankfort. One question Tuesday asked how that could be fixed.
 
Knochelmann said the CEO Rountable, a group of well-established and influential business and community leaders such as Bill Butler of Corporex, Dr. Jim Votruba of Northern Kentucky University, and Bob Zapp of the Bank of Kentucky, is exploring how some local organizations could possibly be combined or consolidated.
 
"Whether it be Tri-Ed (Tri-County Economic Development Authority) or the Chamber of Commerce, I can tell you today that Northern Kentucky is probably weaker today than it's ever been in representing itself in Frankfort," Knochelmann said. "That has to be fixed."
 
"We're going to have to rattle some cages and upset some people and say, we demand a change, we demand better accountability, transparency of those organizations, and who's benefiting from what they are advocating," he said. "I'm not worried about making somebody upset by speaking the truth on those issues."
 
"I'm a big believer in trying to create opportunities for businesses to generate their own free market," Arlinghaus said. "One thing I am very proud of is how we can encourage businesses to grow or come to Northern Kentucky. We have to hold the line on taxes, that's what I have done. There has been no property tax increase since I've been elected."
 
Arlinghaus said the county also overhauled its occupational license tax department including the software that is used, to make it more efficient. "We're trying to work with other counties to say, what can we do as a group?," he said.
 
"I work very well with Tri-Ed. There are a lot of discussions about Boone County getting the majority of business. How come they're not coming to Kenton County? Truth be told, we have a pretty well established community in Kenton County. Boone, for the luck of the draw, has a lot of raw land available. A lot more flat lands and the interstate. Those businesses, I don't care if they land in Boone, Campbell, or Kenton, though the payroll tax is nice to have, it's still good for the community."
 
Every job created there means another job created here, Arlinghaus said.
 
Within Kenton County alone there are a number of possible consolidation opportunities and one question at the forum involved a proposed merger of the Kenton County Police and the Kenton County Sheriff's Office.
 
"It's a possibility that you could see a merger," Arlinghaus said. "When I was first elected I had some very grandiose ideas. Merge dispatch centers. Merge county police with the sheriff. And try to help convince other cities to try to merge services to help one another."
 
"What I didn't anticipate was, the problems we would encounter to create the merger of the dispatch center. It took quite a bit longer than anyone anticipated because everyone wanted to keep their center in place."
 
Eventually, the City of Covington closed its dispatch operations and all of its employees were brought on at the county. Meanwhile, the City of Erlanger continues to operate its own system.
 
Arlinghaus said the county will save $2.2 million over the five years following the merger but had Erlanger (and Crescent Springs and Elsmere which are served by Erlanger) joined in, the savings would have been closer to $5 million.
 
But as for the police and sheriff merger, "I do anticipate the sheriff and county police chief getting together. We have talked to folks about looking at a study," Arlinghaus said. "Right now it's not something that can happen overnight."
 
Knochelmann called a possible merger of the sheriff's office and the county police "a huge issue" but said that there have been no conversations about it at the county level.
 
He said the cost savings, operations, and whether the public wants the merger would have to be evaluated.
 
"There are other areas of shared services in Kenton County we need to talk about but it's going to require cooperation." Knochelmann said. He went on to say that the county implemented the highest fee increase in the history of its dispatch center after the merger. He and Arlinghaus differed on how to fund the merged center. The Judge-Executive wanted the bill to be placed on utility bills in the county while Knochelmann supported placing the fee on land parcels. 
 
Knochelmann argued that the county still does not have consolidated dispatch operations because Erlanger has not joined in.
 
"We need a new leader setting the right budget from the judge-executive's perspective and we can save dollars," Knochelmann said.
 
In the closing statement portion of Tuesday's event, Knochelmann highlighted other areas where he believes he would be a better choice than Arlinghaus.
 
"I can tell you, when I look back on why I'm going to do a better job as judge-executive, when I tell you something, it's going to be the truth and when I tell you something is going to be done, you can take it to the bank," he said.
 
"Looking at my opponent's checklist, a number of items have been addressed tonight: sheriff and police merger, nothing. We still have two dispatch centers, tax and fee increases." 
 
He called for ending "political favors" and reducing costs at the Northern Kentucky Area Planning Commission and CVG Airport Board which the Kenton County Judge-Executive has control over. "Stop wasteful spending?," Knochelmann said. "Every year our expenditures have increased, not decreased. We've got to change that. ... Do you reduce spending at the airport when you go out on international trips as the judge-executive did and not advocate for changing policy when he was going to Morocco?"
 
"When you see the facts, you have to hold us accountable. I'm going to hold the banner up and say enough is enough. It won't end until you decide to hold us accountable."
 
"Kenton County can be stronger for businesses and residents by making sure that more of its dollars stay in your pockets and not the government's pockets," Knochelmann said. He said he would cut the judge-executive's salary and eliminate the vehicle.
 
"When I took office I had grand ideas," Arlinghaus said. "But when you get thrown a curve ball of expenses going out the roof, it changes your platform quite a bit."
 
Even though Erlanger did not join the county dispatch system, there is still a $2.2 million savings for Kenton County over five years, Arlinghaus said. "These are not made up numbers. I have certified documents form the treasurer."
 
Arlinghaus held up the certified documents.
 
He acknowledged questions raised by Kenton County Jailer Terry Carl in a recent article at The River City News about the judge-executives claims about overtime expenses. "It is upsetting," Arlinghaus said. "When I took office, who in the world expected for me to be sitting there to find out the jail was spending $80,000 a month in overtime?"
 
"First things first," he said, remembering when he first took office. "What do I have to do to cut the costs and get things under control?" 
 
"Why was the golf course losing over half a million dollars? I spent months and months trying to get these problems resolved."
 
He called the disputes to his numbers "hogwash". "I've done the job. I've put my heart and soul into doing it right. Can things be improved? Absolutely. Things can always be improved. You need a fiscal court that can work together."
 
Many important votes at the Kenton Fiscal Court have ended in 2-2 stalemates, with Arlinghaus finding support from Commissioner Jon Draud and Knochelmann joined by fellow Commissioner Beth Sewell, all Republicans. "Without Commissioner Draud, none of this would have been possible. He's the one who stuck with me on this," Arlignhaus said.
 
"I'm running on my record. I'm not running on promises and hopes and a bag of tricks. I'm running on my record and my record speaks for itself."
 
Primary Election Day is May 20. There is no Democratic candidate for Judge-Executive.
 
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News
 
Photo: (R to L) Knochelmann, Arlinghaus, and Commission candidates Jon Draud, Joe Nienaber, Beth Sewell, Amy Heeger, Joe Koester, and Dan Bell/RCN