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Election Preview: Sewell Vs. Bell for Kenton Commissioner District 1

As the race for Kenton County Judge-Executive steals a great deal of attention leading up to the May 20 Republican primary, so should the campaigns to fill the three Kenton County Commission seats that also make up the Fiscal Court.

With Commissioner Kris Knochelmann challenging incumbent Judge-Executive Steve Arlinghaus, at least one new member will be elected. The other two incumbent commissioners are also facing competitive challenges.

With no Democrats in any of the races, the Kenton County Fiscal Court will again be made up entirely of Republicans, elected on May 20 and taking office in January.

Two mayors are vying for spots on the Fiscal Court. Taylor Mill Mayor Dan Bell is challenging incumbent Beth Sewell in District One, which covers northern Kenton County and Covington, while Ft. Wright Mayor Joe Nienaber faces local businessman Joe Koester for the District 3 open seat being vacated by Knochelmann which includes central Kenton County and suburban cities. Incumbent Jon Draud, the former state legislator and state education commissioner, is being challenged by farmer Amy Heeger in District 2 which covers southern Kenton County and some suburban cities.

All Republican voters on May 20 will pick one candidate in each of the three races.

All six candidates talked to The River City News in recent days about where they stand on the future of the county, why the current Fiscal Court is often mired in dysfunction, and why they believe they are best suited to lead Kentucky's third largest county for the next four years.

The first of three previews is below and focuses on the Sewell-Bell campaign. Nienaber-Koester and Draud-Heeger will follow.

District One - Beth Sewell vs. Dan Bell

"From a county perspective, it's important that the county be involved in helping cities and not be a hindrance to cities," Mayor Bell said. "That comes to mind with things like 911 dispatch. That's one of my main topics."

Kenton County recently absorbed the City of Covington into its emergency dispatch center when the city decided to end its 911 operations as a cost-saving measure. Though the original plan called for the addition of Erlanger's system to the county, too, that city still operates independently for now. The Fiscal Court decided to fund the merged center through an $85 parcel fee assessed to properties rather than a proposed alternative of placing the fee on the gas & electric bills of all Duke Energy customers.

Bell was in favor of the Duke bill option and took nine mayors to the court to ask for that option to be adopted. "The rationale was, there's 72,000 electric meters in Kenton County and if you spread that cost out on a month to month basis, it's cheaper for everyone and it's much better if you're on a fixed income or a homeowner and scratching to make ends meet rather than having a lump sum $85 parcel fee added to your tax bill."

Sewell, who opposed the Duke bill option, said the county would have faced a costly lawsuit from Duke had it gone that route. Though she agrees that the parcel fee is inequitable, as most 911 calls are to rental units that are not affected by the parcel fee, she that was the only other option presented by Arlinghaus.

She said the plan to place the fee on electric bills would have been too risky. "I think it was a Pandora's box. Why wouldn't we be able to do it to any corporation?," Sewell said. "If I had my wishes, we would have balanced the county budget two or three years in a row, which we were not allowed to do, though (Knochelmann) and I presented balanced budgets, which would have afforded us enough money to pay for it for a number of years."

"I respect the mayor's opinions but some mayors didn't come and when the mayors passed their resolutions, very few citizens were there saying this is how we wanted it to be billed."

Sewell suggested that Kenton County could look to Campbell County as an example which funds its merged dispatch center through a per-unit fee.

Bell said that Duke is already collecting franchise fees for cities as well as school tax fees. "They're already collecting it, so all it would be for them is a computer programming adjustment," he said. The mayor said that the Kentucky League of Cities, where he serves on the board, said that the county would have the right to collect its dispatch fees through Duke.

"Why is the meter the best way? You have apartments that have one hundred fifty units, they pay one parcel. I'm a homeowner, I pay one parcel. So, you essentially have a hundred families or people living in an apartment with an electric meter that aren't paying anything and you have homeowners footing the bill for something that should be spread out to everyone," Bell said. 

He said that he believed Kenton County would win a lawsuit if one was brought by Duke.

Sewell called the utility fee a "hidden tax". "So that utility customers will not blame the county for the increase in paying for 911, but blame Duke or Owen (Electric)," she said. "Ultimately it will be the customers who will eat the cost of the lawsuit, the fee, and collection fees if we had won a lawsuit."

She cited an ongoing lawsuit in Garrard County over collecting 911 fees that is expected to go all the way to the US Supreme Court, with results, she said, not expected until 2016 at the earliest. "Imagine how long it would have drawn out with a large corporation like Duke," she said. "We still would have needed another type of collection in the meantime. My opponent complains about the parcel fee but what solution would he have offered to pay for these services until the suit was settled."

Sewell said the Fiscal Court had to move quickly and chose the lesser of two evils.

Bell is chairman of the Emergency Dispatch Board in the county.

The 911 dispatch vote was one of a series of contentious issues that saw the Fiscal Court divided with Knochelmann and Sewell on one side and Arlinghaus and Draud on the other. The contention has persisted over the years.

"I often think if you look at county government, the way ours operates from an organization standpoint, the judge has a lot of power and that's true in Kentucky county government, period," Sewell said. "I remember in one of our first meetings, I said, I think it's important for us to sit and talk about our roles and discuss what we understand about our roles. I remember our executive saying, 'I see myself as the owner and manager of this baseball team and you guys are first, second, and third basemen. We had a different philosophy in how this should work."

"I guess I'm a little more constitutional in my approach and I believe, why have a legislative body if they can't ask questions and bring up issues and force that executive to explain his rationale? I took that approach from the very beginning and sometimes that wasn't appreciated," Sewell said. "I tried to do it with grace and respect and there were times that wasn't returned so I kind of gave up."

Sewell said that there exists a lack of mutual respect and trust and communication. She said county staff often felt like their jobs were in jeopardy. "At one point we were told we could not speak to staff members without our judge authorizing that and we should follow a chain of command," she said.
 
Bell said that in Taylor Mill, he and the city commission create a vision and collaborate to move towards a consensus, and that's how large scale developments like the Districts of Taylor Mill or state projects like the widening of Kentucky 16 (Taylor Mill Road) come to be. "I don't see a lot of consensus on the current fiscal court. If one party says one thing, the other party says, I don't think we should go that way," he said. "That's gridlock."
 
"I see my opportunity to come into the fiscal court situation to provide collaboration and consensus and establish a vision for the future."
 
Bell said that he is not a candidate running for any particular judge-executive candidate. 
 
"They have tried their best to say I'm in somebody's pocket. I'm not in anybody's pocket," Bell said. "I've told both of them, don't expect me to agree with you every time. Don't expect me to be a rubber stamp. I'm not going to lean over and say, 'How should I vote for this?' I've got twenty years experience and a long time living in this county."
 
"I'm not going to bring problems. I'm going to bring solutions and whatever the makeup of the fiscal court is... my opponent is trying to make it that way. I'm my own guy. Its actually insulting, but it won't be the first time I've been insulted."
 
Sewell said that she is a stronger conservative than Bell. "Conservatism is about really holding true to keeping government fiscally responsible and most of the time a good conservative cares mostly about what we do with your money when it leaves your pocket. I have had a proven record of that over four years as a county commissioner," Sewell said. She said that Bell has raised taxes as mayor or a city commissioner in Taylor Mill more than 83-percent over ten years (a claim he disputes). "To me, that doesn't bode well for a conservative record." She also targeted a recent dust-up in Taylor Mill over property rights where a landowner hoped to see a UDF developed on his plot but faced some initial hurdles at the city building.
 
"I think (Bell) has gotten into issues recently no allowing development, some of which is politically motivated. The residents spoke out. They're not happy with some of the decisions made there. I would respect the person's right to develop," Sewell said. 
 
The UDF plans were allowed to move forward to the next phase after the city and developer met several times in private and public.
 
Sewell also cited a recent article about Taylor Mill's new website that had not yet updated to include the minutes from city meetings. "I don't know why they're spending a lot of money on a website when they can't get the roads paved in their city," she said. "I could put attachments on my twenty-dollar-a-month site we're operating for our campaign. I think he's got some issues with transparency, with being a real conservative, and I think he has some issues with proving that he's ready to lead a conservative county."
 
Bell said that his experience as a municipal leader has prepared him for governance at the county level.
 
"My opponent has been been a mayor or a councilwoman or a commissioner, so she doesn't understand the rationale that goes into running a city," Bell said. "I've been involved in city government for ten years. I'll have a very high level of cooperation and collaboration with the cities and anything coming down the pike that could affect the cities, I'll be cognizant of that."
 
Bell highlights that Taylor Mill is debt free and has been in the ten years that he has been there as mayor and city commissioner. "To me, that's a pretty big deal," he said.
 
"We have state of the art services, one of the best maintenance departments for snow removal, we have a great park for our residents, ALS ambulance services, paramedics on our ambulances," Bell said. "We have what I consider to be a pretty well-rounded city, so our focus in the future whether I'm mayor or not will be to enhance the business district."
 
Sewell also says she knows a thing or two about business. She grew up on a large farm in central Indiana and is still involved in the family business. "I learned how to make payroll," she said. Sewell previously was executive director of the Covington Business Council and lives in Wallace Woods. She home-schools her children.
 
Bell is retired from the pharmaceutical sales industry and grew up in Covington before becoming a teacher and coach at Simon Kenton High School.
 
One of the two, if elected, would be tasked with helping the county find a new home possibly, a move that could eventually involve the City of Covington on a government campus. "There have been some preliminary conversations with Covington with the hope that our primary reason is to find efficiencies," Sewell said. The city is currently renting a building on Pike Street while its previous City Hall is developed into a boutique hotel. The Kenton County Building in Downtown Covington is large and mostly unoccupied since the jail moved south.
 
"I would think it's important for us to stay in Covington. It's the largest city in our community," Sewell said. "It's hard because we see population growing farther south in the county and our southern Independence location is used a lot. It's significantly higher than Covington. I think we have to gather some data. Moving would not be an easy decision."
 
"Certainly I like the idea of building something jointly if it is a cost-saver. Building something better in a place in Covington that would be a people's building like they used to have at the old courthouses, with some green space, something lovely we could be proud of."
 
Bell said that while he has not been on the Fiscal Court or seen all the shortcomings of the current building, "It's lacking to say the least".
 
"However, it's on one of the primest pieces of property in the whole area in its relationship to Ohio and Cincinnati," he said. He said it could be a viable site for redevelopment.
 
"I think the county should at some point partner with the City of Covington. I wouldn't want to see the County Building leave Covington. I'd like to see the county stay in Covington just as the jailed stayed in Covington. I think we need to continue to enhance Covington's position in the community and in the state," he said.
 
Bell said he would advocate for the creation of an internal economic development position that would work with the cities in creation opportunities for growth.
 
For Sewell, campaign promises from candidates don't always translate after elections. "A lot of politicians go knock on doors and say 'I promise' and then they sit down after they're elected and learn that the real art is in cooperation to get things done," she said. "That's important to me. I think I really am focusing on principle-based campaigning. I find that along the lines of making promises when they come into elected office, people don't bring a set of principles. This has been an opportunity to really outline those things."
 
She said that it is important that all parts of the county are represented on the Fiscal Court: urban, suburban, and rural. Being from Covington, she would be from the urban part. "I am not myopic in my approach to governing but if we elect only people from the suburbs, then our diverse county is not truly represented," she said. Currently, for example, Covington has no representation at the board of directors of Sanitation District 1, in spite of being the most flood-prone city in the county. She hopes to change that and said that previous attempts have stalled at the Judge-Executive.
 
"I think that county government needs real citizens to represent them," Sewell said. "We have two mayors and a former state legislator, and a former city and county commissioner running. I think it would be nice to have folks that are just regular citizens serving, not long term politicians who are bored or needing a new challenge, but business owners, moms, and farmers. This is who Kenton County really is."
 
For Bell, his experience in sales and municipal government would benefit the county locally and in Frankfort, he said. "We need someone down there in their faces 24/7, otherwise we're not going to get what we need and I plan on being that person or one of those persons" Bell said.
 
"This is the third largest county in Kentucky and we cannot be silent. We must raise our level of concern to legislators about things like (State Route) 536."
 
He said when he was in Frankfort discussing the widening of Taylor Mill Road, "I felt like when people looked at me, I had KY 16 across my forehead," he said. "You have to make your case at least six times before you can get a positive response. I'm going to make it eight times if I have to. It's about persistence. You can be the smartest guy in the room and have all the data, but if you're not persistent, it's not going to happen. Persistence to me is omnipotent."
 
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News