COVINGTON, Ky. – Commissioner Kris Knochelmann will have his hands full come Jan. 1, 2015 when he takes his seat in the plush, leather chair at the Kenton County Fiscal Court.
“I wake up excited, energized, thinking about things we can do for Kenton County,” said the newly-elected judge executive, who took the race by 1,035 votes, beating out incumbent Steve Arlinghaus during the primary.
From heroin to newsworthy airport board behavior, Knochelmann will have a full plate and an eager public awaiting solutions.
CVG squashes re-election for Arlinghaus
Without fail, the issue of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport was on the tip of both Arlinghaus and Knochelmann’s tongues. And why not, the past 12 months have been nothing short of a turbulent ride among the county and the airport it owns.
The Kenton County Airport Board, which oversees CVG, has had its fair share of debacles, from trying to oust CEO Candace McGraw, to the chair’s lawsuit against McGraw’s secretary, to questionable spending habits, which led to a full-on investigation by Kentucky State Auditor Adam Edelen—whose review is still ongoing.
It was those headlines that grabbed the public’s interest and in turn cost him his re-election this time around, Arlinghaus said.
“I couldn’t get over that hurdle,” he said about the most defended topic he was faced with at each door he knocked on during his campaign.
During the campaign, Knochelmann called Arlinghaus out for putting up with the chaos surrounding the airport board.
“I would have asked for resignations months ago,” Knochelmann said during their final debate in April. “The airport is a huge regional asset, an economic engine. It's a shining jewel of the community… It needs to be run in a professional, non-newsworthy manner.”
“I have a little heartburn after that,” Arlinghaus said, who also pointed out that during his time as judge executive, he saw the airport and its board expand DHL, revitalize Concourse A with a $36 million expansion and launch three new carriers: Allegiant, Ultimate Air Shuttle and Frontier.
The airport board’s issues, he said, were blamed on him and a direct reflection of his leadership, however, he is not in charge of what the board does, he said.
The board makes airport decisions, he continued. Once he appoints the county’s allotted seven voting members to the board, they make the decisions. He can make recommendations but cannot dictate, he said.
His last action to the board was appointing Bill Robinson III, Kathy Collins and Chad Summe’s to four-year terms on the board back in February, filling the roles abruptly vacated by Chairman Jim Huff, Vice Chair Larry Savage and an executive committee member, following the string of negative attention.
Knochelmann said the fiscal court can make airport board policy changes -- and he plans to.
“We now know of the oversight that the fiscal court can and should have on boards that are appointed by the judge executive," he said.
While he said he wouldn’t work on any changes until the auditor’s report is released, he wants to evaluate the board’s structure, which includes 18 members, seven of which are voting members and are appointed by the Kenton County judge executive, in addition to six advisory board appointments.
The board configuration is decided and can only be altered by the state.
Furthermore, Knochelmann said, he wants to change the travel and expense policy, limiting the number of board members to travel to any one conference to three.
Policy changes that have already taken effect include no alcohol reimbursement and no more first-class travel to board-related conventions.
Knochelmann plans to “clean up the opportunity to abuse,” he said. “I want to do that right off the bat.”
The drama eroding the airport’s reputation locally, however, will not make or break CVG’s operations, he assured.
“It should be a closed issue after 2015,” Knochelmann promised, saying that he would like to see the airport board invigorate what CVG stands for.
The airport, which has been ranked as having the second highest fares, is key to the region's economic development on both sides of the river. It generates more than 16,000 direct and direct jobs and $2.7 billion in spending by CVG operations, construction and visitors annually—creating an annual $3.6 billion economic impact on the community, according to a 2012 study.
Battling a region-wide epidemic
The heroin epidemic is a big deal to Arlinghaus, not only for his constituents, but also personally, as he lost a niece to the deadly drug.
“We need to move through this quagmire of a problem – there’s a lot of moving parts,” he said, including education, prevention and treatment.
One step in that direction, he said, is the Northern Kentucky Health District hiring a heroin liaison, who will work with agencies, governmental entities and the public.
Deaths from heroin overdoses, which have skyrocketed in Kentucky—up by more than 20 percent—indicate a tremendous need for such a position.
“Northern Kentucky is really the epicenter of the heroin epidemic as far as Kentucky is concerned,” said Bill Mark, director of the Northern Kentucky Drug Strike Force.
“People are literally dying every day,” Mark said. “You put your life in your hands every time you put that needle in your arm.”
Knochelmann’s plan of attack on heroin, which he called a “complicated issue”, is to treat addicts while jailed on drug-related charges.
“So they don’t come back,” he said of releasing them back to the streets rehabilitated.
According to Arlinghaus nearly 80 percent of inmates are being held on a drug-related charge in the Kenton County Detention Center.
Knochelmann also wants to educate the public and bring about awareness in order to prevent future addiction and to enable recovery, hoping to show Kenton County that they should not fear a treatment center being located in their neighborhood.
Kenton County: Where it’s been, where it’s going
Arlinghaus, has been in office since 2011, and said that he came in to a ‘runaway budget’ and $2.5 million deficit—which he and Knochelmann agree has been cleaned up over the four years he has served as the county’s head honcho.
“My term in office was met with big hiccups,” Arlinghaus said. “Getting our financial house in order was one of our biggest challenges. It wasn’t going to happen overnight.”
He said in that time, he cut $10 million in unnecessary expenses, including positions within the county, like the road engineer making $70,000 a year for about 20 hours of work per week; and by eliminating $500,000 in overtime at the jail.
In all, he eliminated approximately $600,000 annually in jobs and overtime expenses from the county’s budget, not including benefits.
As of last year, the county saw a $57,000 profit and eliminated all debt accrued before he took office; and he increased the county’s reserve funds by $5.8 million.
Natural disasters came in like a lion the first two years he held office as well.
With those obstacles behind him, he said, the county was finally able to catch its breathe financially, with no tax increases under his watch.
Arlinghaus was able to secure funding for land at Banklick Creek, in an effort to eventually link Doe Run Lake and Pioneer Park, creating a 640-acre park for the region. This is one piece of the puzzle during his tenure that he calls his ‘unfinished business’ as he vacates his seat.
In steps Knochelmann.
“I’m hopeful he does a good job,” Arlinghaus said of his replacement, Covington-based Schneller Heating and Cooling owner, whom he has offered assistance while he’s in office to get the ball rolling for him.
“This county is more important than he or I. The airport is more important to the region than any one person,” he said about putting beefs aside for the good of the entire county.
“I always want to walk out with my head held high, knowing I did everything I could, morally and ethically,” Arlinghaus said. “I’ve made blunders along the way, but I’m pleased.”
While the campaign was chock-full of tongue-lashings and verbal mudslinging, Knochelmann reflected on what his predecessor is leaving behind in good shape.
“Steve was able to talk about issues that weren’t talked about,” Knochelmann said of Arlinghaus’ role in merging all cities’ dispatch centers, excluding Erlanger, into one central center, collecting one $85 annual fee from landowners.
The 911-dispatch merger throughout the county is highly credited to Arlinghaus’ leadership.
The budget, which he also takes partial credit for having served as a commissioner on the fiscal court, is in good shape.
But Arlinghaus said that will also be one of his biggest challenges for the newbie stepping into his role: maintaining that budget without any tax increases.
One way that Knochelmann said he plans on making every dollar count is by creating a four-year budget rather than annually, and start knocking out the details during the first quarter, rather than waiting for the June deadline.
He plans on saving the county additional money by restructuring and possibly eliminating some county staff positions.
One position he will immediately sever is the deputy judge of the fiscal court, who is the judge executive’s right-hand man. That position would be combined with the county administrator and free up $107,930 annually, in an effort to streamline the administration, making it more efficient, he said.
Economic development is another top priority on Knochelmann’s agenda, he said.
“Kenton County is open for business,” he said, inviting small businesses to the county to grow and prosper—businesses, that he said Tri-Ed may not necessarily lure to the region as a whole.
Finally, the two-term commissioner said his outlook on the role of judge executive is to “listen more, talk less.”
“I’m very good at listening, debating issues and become unified position to get things done,” Knochelmann said of over-communicating, educating and debating with the goal to creating action.
While Knochelmann does not have an opponent in the general election, a write-in candidate still has until Oct. 24 to file.
Vacating for now…
Arlinghaus’ plan after Jan. 1 is to revamp his suffering real estate business, which took a hit when he lent his full-time commitment to the county four years ago. But he’s not ruling anything out.
“I really enjoy public service, we’ll see what other opportunities come about," he said.
For more stories by Jessica Noll, go to www.wcpo.com/noll. Follow her on Twitter @JessicaWCPO.