Friday, February 16, 2001

Democrats challenging Kenton Co. building purchase

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — Democrats are keeping pressure on the Republican-controlled Kenton County Fiscal Court over the purchase of a downtown Covington office building.

        At issue is the $1.5 million deal the fiscal court closed Feb. 6 on a two-story brick building at Fifth and Main streets that will be used by up to five county departments, including the judge-executive, county commissioners and county attorney.

        Last week the Democrats raised questions about Republican Party activists and contributors who were involved in the deal.

        And over the last few days, Kenton County Democratic Party spokesman Nathan Smith and oth er party operatives have focused on what they've described as shoddy record-keeping.

        “Obviously, this deal wasn't thought through very well,” Mr. Smith said Thursday. “We've reviewed the fiscal court's (transaction records), and it looks pretty clear that they didn't do their homework on this deal before they spent $1.5 million of our money.”

        Deputy County Judge-executive Scott Kimmich bristled at those comments, accusing Mr. Smith and the Democrats of partaking in nothing more than partisan politics.

        “It's politics as usual with these Democrats,” Mr. Kimmich said Thursday. “This is a good deal for the taxpayers, a prudent use of taxpayers' money. Clearly, it's a good business decision.”

        Mr. Smith and other Democrats originally questioned the involvement of two GOP activists:

        • Steve Preston, the building's owner, who formerly served on the Republican Party's county executive committee and who has contributed money to GOP candidates and worked on their campaigns.

        • Ken Harper, a former Republican state lawmaker and local party official from Crestview Hills. The owner of a real estate firm, he brokered the deal between the county and Mr. Preston.

        Mr. Kimmich said there was nothing unethical or illegal about the pair's involvement. He pointed out that Covington real estate broker Chuck Eilerman, a regis tered Democrat, originally brought the property to the county's attention.

        But the Democrats have backed off their talk of any type of favoritism on the deal, focusing instead on what they think is the fiscal court's poor job of documenting why the purchase is a good use of taxpayers' money.

        The county, the Democrats argue, should be leasing space rather than buying it, and has not fully documented all aspects of the purchase, such as the long-term use of all the space, some of which is now being leased by private companies. The Democrats also say officials moved too quickly on securing the space when they are not sure it will be needed.

        Mr. Kimmich said the court determined that purchasing the property was a better deal than a long-term lease because the office will permanently house some county offices that will be displaced by an expansion of the jail in the existing county courthouse.

        He also said the court followed its own procurement code “to the letter,” and he produced documents and letters that showed other properties were explored before Mr. Preston's building was purchased.

        The Democrats have also questioned the value of the property, which was assessed at less than $900,000 four years ago when Mr. Preston bought it.

        Mr. Kimmich produced a letter from The Appraisal Company of Covington, which notified the county in a Feb. 5 letter that it appraised the building at $1.5 mil lion.

        Mr. Kimmich said it's not unusual for a property, be it commercial or residential, to sell at a higher value than what it is assessed at for tax purposes.

        He looked up the tax records on Mr. Smith's Fort Mitchell home and found that it was assessed at $85,000 in 1998 and purchased by Mr. Smith for $144,000 in 1999.

        Mr. Smith and other Democrats were taken back by the comparison.

        “There's a big difference,” Mr. Smith said. “Scott is spending taxpayers' money on a government building. My home is residential property. What does my house have to do with this whole thing?”


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