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One County, Lots of Cities: Will Merger Talk Catch on in Kenton?

The fact that Cincinnati, Ohio's airport is owned by Kenton County, Kentucky and located in Boone County, Kentucky, is only the tip top of the many issues surrounding the multitude of governments, cities, taxing districts, and utilities in our region.

But in a time of increased recognition of the position that Northern Kentucky does not get its "fair share" from Frankfort, a closer look is being given to how best to speak more loudly with a singular voice, particularly in Kenton County, the third largest in the Commonwealth.

That was the topic of the latest Northern Kentucky Forum this week which featured local government and civic leaders as well as municipal government experts who were tasked with answering the difficult question: How can local governments in Kenton County best work together?

That was the theme, anyway.

The subtext was, where is consolidation possible, if anywhere?

Laura Milam Ross of the Kentucky League of Cities explained that it's a very difficult task for cities and counties to merge. It's happened in Louisville in Lexington in different forms, but has failed many times elsewhere around the state.

"You're definitely not unique as a county for considering this," Ross said. But who's considering it? That was unclear. The panel was formed months after the release of Kenton County Together: A Call to Action, the official report put together by the Kenton County Study Group, a publication that specifically states that it is not necessarily recommending metro government. (Read the report: Click Here) It simply weighs the pros and cons and outlines the lengthy and sometimes complicated history that placed Kenton County where it is.

And where it is, is a populous county with nineteen cities. If metro government were ever seriously considered, which city would merge with the county? Covington? Independence? Ft. Mitchell, Ft. Wright, Taylor Mill, Erlanger, Crescent Springs, Crestview Hills, Ludlow, Bromley? Park Hills?

"It's not an easy topic. There's not a one-fits-all answer for why it hasn't worked so far," Ross said. The examples she provided were from parts of the state where one clear city tried to merge with its county, or vice versa. Bowling Green failed to merge with Warren County, Frankfort couldn't do it with Franklin County, Georgetown and Scott County and Owensboro and Daviess County couldn't get it done. Campbellsville and Taylor County was a no-go. 

Sometimes it was one of the governing bodies involved that stopped the proceedings and sometimes it was the voting public. 

Where would the conversation ever really begin in Kenton County, a place where some cities are served by other cities' police departments or fire departments or dispatch centers. Where interlocal agreements are sometimes difficult to reach just to share street sweepers.

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Local historian Paul Tenkotte explained that there was a small window of opportunity for Covington to absorb its smaller neighbors of Ft. Mitchell and Park Hills in the early years of the 20th century, but wishing to avoid the costs of installing the necessary infrastructure, Covington passed. Then, after the Great Depression and World War II, infused with cash and projects from the New Deal, those smaller cities were suddenly in the position of fending for themselves, and building their own things.

"Everything changed and that is what we call the fragmentation in our communities," Tenkotte said.

Crestview Hills Mayor Paul Meier said that there may be talk of mergers at some point in the future, but it is not on the table now. "I think we're looking for more efficiency in government right now," said Meier, who chairs the Kenton County Mayors Group.

"City resources are not what they used to be," Covington Mayor Sherry Carran said. 

Sheriff Chuck Korzenborn said that some smaller mergers are possible without great fanfare. He noted that the SWAT Team in Kenton County now helps cities outside of the county. "The cooperation saved us resources and logistics," he said.
 
Kenton County Commissioner Kris Knochelmann, who will likely be the Judge-Executive next year after he won the Republican primary in May, said trust is needed between communities. "Is there still a need for discussion or getting more accomplished in Kenton County? That need absolutely still exists," he said. "The good news is, over the past four to six years, we've had good progress with that."
 
He pointed to Covington and Kenton County's joint dispatch center, a merger that took place in 2012 while the city was under great financial stress. "When it comes down to money, when it comes to limited funds, it forces decisions that otherwise might not have been made," Knochelmann said. "Can we make these tough decisions when they're not immediate financial decisions?"
 
Many on the panel agreed that it would be wiser to start with smaller mergers than going big. Dispatch was challenging, but police and fire department mergers could likely more difficult than that in the public eye. Crescent Springs is one city that eliminated its emergency departments and contracted with Erlanger. Marc Fields, city administrator in Erlanger, said there were concerns from his city's business community about that change but in the four years since, those fears have subsided.
 
"I think the failure of these discussions over the years is where we start," Fields said. "We don't start with low-hanging fruit. Every city around here  has a street sweeper that sits in a garage. We couldn't share one with Elsmere. If we're going to start this, you have to build thi strust somewhere. Talk about police, talk about fire, this discussion is over."
 
Charles Saddler, of Erlanger, a former city manager in Kentucky and Florida, said a merger of city police and county sheriff that he was part of in Florida was challenging at first, but was ultimately positive. Dundee saved money and the public got used to seeing their officers in a different uniform. "They don't care what's on the side of the car, they want good service," Saddler said. "Folks have a tendency, I fear, to equate their police department and fire department with their community. It's not that way."
 
"What makes a community is your land use plan, it's your community parks, it's the people who sit together on your code enforcement board who decide what kind of buildings we want and how we want to live together, and those are probably best done at a very local level."
 
Ft. Mitchell Mayor Chris Wiest was not convinced that the public could so easily part with their own municipality's police and fire departments. "I think there's opportunities for shared services," he said. "People want and expect their local police department to be their local police department. They expect their local fire department to be their local fire department and I don't think there's an urge to move away from that in this county at this time."
 
Local banker John Nienaber, who served on the study group, pointed out a possible "low-hanging fruit": tax collection. He noted that service-type businesses that work in all the different communities in the region have to pay occupational taxes to each of them, including the ones in Boone and Campbell Counties. "Particularly in an economy where you have businesses going all across these artificial imaginary lines, there needs to be a better way for tax collection," he said.
 
Before discussions reach their end, though, the public would have the final say, Ross reminded the crowd who attended Wednesday's forum at Beechwood High School. 
 
"We have to remember we're all in this together," Tenkotte said. "How do we best make Northern Kentucky shine? If all of a sudden Toyota leaves Erlanger, if enough of that happens and we have one area of the county going down and one coming up, how can we make certain everyone has public safety and health care. That's really what it's all about."
 
Story & photo by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News