We have a great need for leadership and statesmanship in our country today. In the current dysfunctional political climate, leaders (and especially candidates) are much more likely to tell us what we want to hear than what we need to know. Pressing issues are not even brought up, much less discussed and solved. It is no wonder that the public is angry or apathetic. We need adult conversation and adult behavior out of our leadership, though in this atmosphere, that will be difficult—or even dangerous—requiring political courage. Even so, taking responsibility is what is necessary to begin winning back the trust of the public.
Business activity and jobs pay for everything else, including our community's quality of life. Northern Kentucky is the strongest area for job creation in the state. Out of 120 Kentucky counties, only about 10 have created new jobs in the past 20 years or so, after lost jobs are subtracted out. The three Northern Kentucky counties, Campbell, Kenton, and Boone, are all top ten. The Northern Kentucky economic development agency, Tri-Ed, is by far the most successful such agency in the state, having been recognized as one of the ten best in the United States 5 times. More new jobs have been created here than in either Louisville or Lexington. In this era of scarce resources, we need to keep our eye on the ball and keep job creation strong by supporting the necessary infrastructure like transportation and utility improvements, by addressing workforce development and education needs to provide the quality of workers businesses need, and by continuing to build the high quality of life required to attract businesses and their workers to our area. These goals are not accomplished without effort or sacrifice —but our success so far proves it is worth it.
There has been an explosion of heroin use in Northern Kentucky in just the past two years. Over two hundred people have died of overdoses in that time. A high percentage of the record jail populations in our three Northern Kentucky counties is there because of drug and alcohol abuse and property crimes committed to support those habits. The Northern Kentucky Drug Strike Force is run by county government and includes officers on loan from various cities. Its focus is normally on mid-level dealers (interstate, regional, or major distributors locally) but in the current crisis, it has been extended to reach the street level dealers. The Strike Force has put about 100 dealers behind bars this year. Several cities in Campbell County are also contributing officers or other help to a county-focused street-level effort that has made cases against another 134 dealers in the past year. A truly comprehensive effort is underway that addresses drug education, enforcement and treatment. All the disciplines relevant to a solution are working together: representatives of law enforcement, the judicial system, the legislature, local governments, the hospitals and other treatment providers, our schools, the chamber of commerce, the families of affected individuals, and the community at large. This is a fight that will take time, and a fight we must win. The costs otherwise are enormous. They are running high already.
Regionalism is saving each citizen of Northern Kentucky a huge amount of money already. Water and sanitation utilities have been consolidated region-wide. The Convention and Visitors Bureau, the economic development agency known as Tri-Ed, Vision 2015, Southbank, the Drug Strike Force, and Water Rescue, among other services, are now regional. We have gotten to the point where we have consolidated or regionalized those things that make sense given the legal authority Frankfort has granted. We need further legislation to continue this process where dispatch operations, emergency management, and certain business tax collections are concerned, and to open other areas to this money-saving, streamlining process. Working together regionally not only results in efficiencies in service provision, but also allows us to speak with one voice in Frankfort and Washington and get more of our fair share. Historically, it has been easy for Frankfort to ignore this region of many small cities and three separate counties, especially when compared to Louisville or Lexington, or the so-called "mountain caucus" or rural interests. In politics, as in so many things, Northern Kentucky competes best by cooperating.
“Unfunded mandates” are activities the State of Kentucky and the federal government force counties to do without providing the funds to do them. For example, the new Campbell County Administration Building was planned with the idea that rent would be paid to the county for the clerk, sheriff and PVA offices. Long after construction was under way, the state changed the law and required the county to pay instead. Sometimes, the unfunded mandates come when the state or federal government simply stops paying for things they used to pay for, like senior services and jail reimbursements. Basically, state and federal governments make themselves look good by shifting these and other responsibilities to counties. Counties, in turn, are left to pick up the budgetary pieces. We must continue to fight against unfunded mandates while trying to minimize their impact on the county budget. The fact that we have been able to balance the county budget every year is even more amazing when you factor in these unfunded responsibilities.
Did you know that paying for the county Jail, as required by law, is Campbell County’s largest annual expense by far? Each year, the jail costs the county $9 million—more than 25% of the overall county budget! And each year, the State of Kentucky seems to find more ways of pushing jail-related expenses back onto counties. In fact, the state pays counties less to house prisoners today than it did 20 years ago. Obviously, we must continue to work with legislators to convince the state to shoulder its fair share of the burden, but meanwhile, we have not just waited around for help. Campbell County has literally led the state with a variety of cost-cutting innovations. County officials analyzed best practices from around the nation, settling on two concepts developed in Florida as the best suited to our needs: "direct supervision" and "passive booking". In direct supervision, 90% or more of prisoners qualify according to their behavior to be housed in single room, 64-man dormitories with supervision provided by one jail deputy, who actually works right in that same room. This approach is much cheaper than the traditional individual or two-man cells. In passive booking, new arrivals at the jail who are destined to make bail or to be released are never assigned or moved to a cell. Instead, they are held in a large waiting room that looks for all the world like an airport lounge. They use vending machines, watch TV and wait until it's time for them to go. We also built an inexpensive minimum security facility, designed to hold only those inmates already cleared to do volunteer labor out in the community. Their free labor is valued at over $2,000,000 per year.
Northern Kentucky University continues to be one of the critical drivers of business and community growth in Campbell County. In fact, it has received national recognition for its stewardship of our community. For instance, Northern has tailored its curriculum to produce graduates with the specific qualities needed by the industries our economic development agencies are trying to attract. While the lobbying efforts of NKU and the community it serves were successful in securing state financing for desperately needed facilities like the new science building, the new Griffin Hall Informatics building, and the new Bank of Kentucky Center, NKU remains significantly underfunded compared to its peer institutions around the state. That drives up tuition costs for our kids and their families. Tight state and federal budgets mean future funding is far from assured. Campbell County must deepen its partnership with NKU to make sure it gets the support it—and we—need.
It was no surprise that the ballot question on whether to raise taxes to support a new library branch in the south end of the county failed this past year—because in this slow economy, people felt it was a luxury they did not want to pay for. But the vote was not an indication that folks don't appreciate the library. The Campbell County Library system has 51,000 members out there in a county of about 91,000 people. The libraries are seeing high rates of use. So on the contrary, the current system is very popular and valued by the public. Libraries are still relevant in this era of e-books, videos and the internet: after all, you can borrow e-books and videos from the library or use their computers to go online.
Economic development cannot happen without sanitation capacity. Campbell County suffered with a moratorium on new growth from the mid 1990's until the new plant in Alexandria opened in 2009. Boone County faced the same prospect until a new plant was opened there in 2012. Rates have gone up substantially in the past few years as we have paid for those improvements. But economic development needs are not the only reason rates are going up— we are under a federal court order, called a "consent decree", that requires us to eliminate 179 sites throughout Northern Kentucky where sewage overflows or escapes from collection systems. A consent decree has the force of federal law, and hundreds of them have been issued across the US. While Sanitation District 1 (SD1) has aggressively made the argument that our consent decree should be amended, especially given the state of the economy the past few years, no one expects to be relieved of the obligation to cure the 179 overflow problems—that has not happened anywhere else in the country. We are seeing indications, however, that more time may be allowed to perform the fixes, which will save us money. By the way, our sanitation district has received national recognition for the innovative, money-saving features it successfully proposed be built into our consent decree. That is why, believe it or not, the rates we pay to SD1 are among the lowest of districts around the country at the same stage of compliance with federal law.