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Thursday, March 2, 2017

Campbell County Leaders Share Concerns, Projects

Campbell County Judge Executive, Steve Pendery, admires his portrait on the wall in the Fort Thomas City Council Chambers. Pendery was Mayor of Fort Thomas from 1990-1998. FTM file. 
By Robin Gee

Updates on county concerns and projects brought Campbell County Executive Judge Steve Pendery and other county officials to the February Fort Thomas City Council meeting. They have been visiting municipalities throughout the county in recent months.

Pendery opened with praise for the level of cooperation and partnership evident between the county and its constituent cities and towns.

Heroin in our community

Cooperation is vital in dealing with the heroin issue across Northern Kentucky, Pendery said. A county jail expansion is now complete, bringing capacity to almost 700 beds, about half of which are filled with people there for heroin-related crimes.

The addition of more beds allows the county to try a new treatment program initially aimed at women prisoners. Kenton County has a similar program for men.

Some sobering statistics shared by the county executive: Sixty to eighty percent of those in the Campbell County jail are there for drug and alcohol problems. In Northern Kentucky about 4,000 people are being medically treated for heroin, close to 9,000 are addicted to heroin and, if you include other opiate addictions, that number is closer to 25,000 people.

Despite best efforts, the problem has not been addressed, he said. Last year, St. Elizabeth Hospital reported overdoses were up by 35 percent over the previous year.

Women in the program will work with the county for about six months, but will continue upon release with the Brighton Center or a similar agency for additional treatment. Ending physical dependency on heroin, Pendery explained, can take much longer than the six initial months of jail treatment, so the approach includes up to two years of additional services.

The county will watch the women carefully to make adjustments as needed to the program. If success can be achieved, the goal is to increase the number of women being treated and eventually to expand to include men.

Fort Thomas police officers are a part of the multi-county drug strike force, as well as countywide efforts.

“We’re not immune to this here,” warned Pendery. “This epidemic is striking people all across the board, male and female, all ages, all income groups. This is not something that is happening some place else.” 

A new public safety radio system

Campbell County is working with Kenton and Boone counties to address the need for a new, digital public safety radio system.

The current system was purchased in 1968. It’s an analog system in a digital world, says County Administrator Matt Elberfeld. He outlined the limitations of the old system:

As an analog system, it operates similar to the old party line telephone. Only one person can use the system at a time.
Police, fire and other first responders cannot communicate because their frequencies are not compatible.
Signals from the radios are weak and cannot penetrate some of the dense older buildings in many of our communities.

Cost is about the same to upgrade the current system as it would be to purchase a new digital system, he said. Benefits of a digital system include:

Conversations on digital equipment are unlimited, allowing multiple users at the same time.
Building penetration is much better.
Police, fire and others can be on the same system and communicate directly with each other.
Capacity is unlimited, so different user groups beyond public safety could be added, such as utilities, school districts or public works departments.

The three counties will work together on design and procurement of a comprehensive system. Initial infrastructure costs will be shared but each county would retain separate dispatch services and funding, explained Elberfeld.

Working with the two other counties maintains interoperability between counties and will garner cost savings for combined purchasing and use of core infrastructure and tower sites.

Elberfeld said a request for proposal (RFP) went out in October and has since returned with three responses. The counties plan to have a recommendation by April, negotiations through June and hope to have a contract by July 1. Once a contract is signed, the project would take about 18 months to build, coming online in all three counties near the end of 2018.

Cost sharing among the counties used a complex formula based on population, geography and other factors. Campbell County will be responsible of 27.8 percent of costs for one-third of the project.

While the county is exploring state grants to help, cities will be responsible for purchasing new radios for police and fire. The counties estimate 5,000 radios will be needed for the region. While each city will pay for its own radios, bidding all the radios as one RFP should result in further cost savings.

County development notes

The big question is one of readiness when it comes to development across the region, said Campbell County Economic Development Officer Seth Cutter in his development report.

Three factors — infrastructure improvement, site readiness and workforce preparedness — are key in preparing the way for further development, Cutter said.

The county has been working with the regional development corporation known as Northern Kentucky Tri-ED to assess site readiness and other issues.

“Less than one percent of all 36,000 parcels in this county would be considered site or pad ready for major industrial or commercial users if they called us tomorrow,” said Cutter. “These are things like topography, zoning, flood plains and wetlands issues. We are currently inventorying with Tri-ED what we do have available and developing strategies for what we can do to overcome those site challenges.”

Improved infrastructure, especially roads and sewers, is vital, but some road construction plans fall under the state’s Pause 50 fiscal program, said Cutter. Under Pause 50, select projects are on administrative hold until July 1, 2017 or until $50,000 is in the state gas tax. The county is advocating for swift resumption of projects in our area on or shortly after July 1.

A new countywide property tax moratorium, enacted this fall, offers incentives to businesses to improve older commercial properties. Under the program, the property tax rate for commercial properties more than 25 years old will be frozen at pre-improvement rates for five years. The program complements a long-standing program available in Fort Thomas.

The county is also looking at ways to retain, train and develop the workforce. While Northern Kentucky University and other universities in the region, as well as great communities like Fort Thomas, are big selling points to attract new talent, the question is how best to prepare this talent for the jobs coming to our area, said Cutter.

The county unemployment rate is 3.91 percent taken over 11 months of 2016, Cutter reported.  Despite the recession, the rate has grown, largely due to development and growth projects throughout Campbell County, he said.

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