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Election Preview: Nienaber vs. Koester for Kenton Commissioner - District 3

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 second of three previews focuses on the Nienaber-Koester campaign. A preview of Draud vs. Heeger will follow. See the preview of Sewell vs. Bell by clicking here.

District Three - Nienaber vs. Koester

"I thought with my business experience that I can help with the efficiency in the county," businessman Joe Koester said. While he is making his first run for office, Koester has been a longtime donor and supporter of Republican candidates and causes. Gov. Ernie Fletcher appointed him to the state mutual insurance board and he spent thirteen years on the board of the Northern Kentucky Water District, five of those as chairman. "We had one philosophy: do more with less," he said of his time at the Water District.

His opponent has held public office for a decade. "As mayor of Ft. Wright, I think it's time for someone else to take the help and the issues I'm interested in such as fiscal responsibility and security for my parents and my children are best achieved on the county level," Nienaber said.

"I'm in this specifically while I'm able to affect it in real time. My parents are headed into their twilight. It's time for us to focus and ave their back. I have two teen daughters. They're facing stuff I never had to face. Heroin, social media. I could wait and do it down the road or do it now when I can have the most effect on my own generation, on my parents' generation, and my kids' generation."

"I think my skills are needed on the county level to be able to influence a safe community for my kids," Nienaber said.

If elected, either candidate will serve on a Fiscal Court that is following an administration mired in dysfunction and multiple high profile 2-2 tie votes. "They just can't see the end result. You have to compromise," Koester said. "Express your different ideas and do what's best for Kenton County."

"I don't think that's happening."

"You don't read about us much," Nienaber joked, since the Ft. Wright City Council mostly gets along. "I've created a very respectful and positive work environment for our council and staff."

"We've been able t respectfully debate the issues." He points to his city's debt-free status resulting from the congenial leadership. "We're cash-flowing the city much like you would a business."

Nienaber and Koester are both business owners. Koester has operated Herzong Jewelers for forty years and led the statewide organization for jewelry retailers. Nienaber owns Granite World in Covington.

Nienaber blames some of the dysfunction at the current Fiscal Court on "a disrespectful culture" and the previous election.
 
"I think elections have consequences. There's a winner and there's a loser and when winners win, they get the change and when losers lose, they should go home," the mayor said.
 
He referenced the 2010 race for Judge-Executive when Arlinghaus defeated Scott Kimmich who was supported by Knochelmann, and also by Nienaber. "I think the people who supported the loser spent four years trying to vindicate that and it's just not welcome int he county, so they are going to elect people like me who are not going to tolerate it."
 
Koester said that he could work with anybody. "That's what I tell everybody. I'm my own person and not aligned with any person. I'm running my own campaign," he said. 
 
Whatever the make-up, the next Fiscal Court will be tasked with ongoing issues such as fighting heroin, funding the 911 emergency dispatch center, and possibly locating a site for a new County Building.
 
Koester said there is a three-prong approach to combating heroin. "Education," he said. "You don't dare try heroin. You try it once and you're hooked."
 
He said some of the money in the county's reserves from the sale of Rosedale Manor may have to be tapped into for treatment beds. "Too many people are dying daily or weekly."
 
"One prong missing on this heroin deal is, if you don't normalize people, people like me who hire people on heroin, if you can't have your record expunged, the cycle continues," Nienaber said at a previous candidates forum. "It's a huge psychological problem."
 
In 2012 during a meeting in Downtown Covington, Nienaber called heroin "the largest issue we have in Kenton County". "This is going to be a defining issue of how we move forward," he said then.
 
Both candidates like the idea of placing a fee on Duke Energy bills to fund the dispatch center, a contentious issue among current members of the Fiscal Court. The feel was ultimately placed on property parcels instead.
 
"Right now it's very disproportionate on the funding," Nienaber said. He pointed out apartment complexes in his city where there are four hundred units, but only one parcel fee. "They're paying eighty-five dollars. At my home on Kentucky Drive, I'm paying eighty-five dollars."
 
"It's going to be the most fair and equitable way to do it. It will bring everyone's costs down and spread it out over more people."
 
"What I like about the meters, they service everyone," Koester said. "But Duke was going to fight that. You can win the battle but lose the war. The idea is to get the money for 911. Why spend a million dollars on attorney fees and not win the war?"
 
Koester said he would  like to see a funding source through cell phone users. "The majority of 911 calls are to apartment people. They all have cell phones and they're not paying their fair share."
 
Both are also interested in exploring the possibility of building a government campus that would house Kenton County and the City of Covington.
 
"It has to be located somewhere in the inner core," Koester said. "Joining with the City of Covington is the right idea. We both need space and we can piggy back on each other somewhere in Covington where we can develop and everyone can be happy."
 
The current building in Covington is too expensive to operation and too valuable a location, Koester said.
 
Nienaber said the county should be open to a shared campus if it creates more efficiency in the government. "There are too many separate buildings and separate entities on all levels," he said. "As far as the county and Covington, I think we should look at that."
 
As the two men battle it out for the one open seat at the Fiscal Court, Koester said the main issue he is hearing about from voters is conservatism. "They want someone new. Not a politician," he said.
 
Nienaber also yields to fiscal conservatism. "I will make decisions based on providing efficient services," he said. "At the end of the day, the citizens own it. I'm not going to tell you you're not going to get taxed, but it will be efficient and the most affordable possible. That's how I operate. Government will and can be efficient under me."
 
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News
 
Photo: Nienaber (left) and Koester