Sunday, July 08, 2001

Tax hikes rouse Kenton race

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        INDEPENDENCE — Kenton County Judge-executive Dick Murgatroyd has opened his 2002 re-election campaign with accomplishments and ideas that don't make headlines but with problems that do.

        Mr. Murgatroyd is a Villa Hills Republican seeking a second term as the top elected official in the state's third largest county.

        He once was viewed as unbeatable by even the most partisan opponents but his political baggage is tempting Democrats to promise a challenger by late summer.

        Confident during an interview, Mr. Murgatroyd talked about his policies and ideas in the same quiet voice in which he discussed his treatment by Democrats and the news media.

        With him was Deputy Judge-executive Scott Kimmich, who is to the judge what Karl Rove is to President Bush, an omnipresent adviser.

        Mr. Murgatroyd was unrattled even after hurrying from the second floor office to answer the cries of “help” from the courthouse parking lot where an elderly woman appeared to be having a seizure or stroke. For a few moments Mr. Murgatroyd held the woman's hand as she waited for an ambulance.

        Back in his second-floor office, he said, “I prefer to deal with the issues and I understand whenever you are in this kind of job people are always going to want to take potshots at you. Maybe that's a compliment. When you are doing a good job people try to find fault with you and try to make you look bad.”

        Kenton County Democrats say Mr. Murgatroyd and the rest of the all-Republican fiscal court — commissioners Adam Koenig, Dan Humpert and Barb Black — have done a remarkable job making themselves look bad.

        Contrary to Republican ideology, they raised taxes three times since taking office three years ago. The increases — on property, utility and payroll taxes — an gered many GOP county leaders and supporters.

        Democrats, long portrayed as “tax and spenders” by Northern Kentucky Republicans, see that as a political opening.

        Two Democratic Party leaders, lawyers Mark Guilfoyle and Patrick Hughes, won a lawsuit against the county this year by challenging the legality of the payroll-tax increase. The county is appealing.

        “I've heard the Republicans say they want to reach out to communities,” said Mr. Guilfoyle, who is pondering running against Mr. Murgatroyd. “But every
time they reach out it's into somebody's pocket.”

        Mr. Murgatroyd said the payroll tax was necessary to pay for building a new jail but raising it “was probably the hardest thing I've done in 10 years.”

        Higher taxes also were

        needed to maintain services and pay for road projects, he said.

        For instance, the county is repairing and improving Garvey Avenue in Elsmere and Amsterdam Road in Park Hills but still has $30 million in road repair needs, including windy Crescent Springs-Bromley Road.

        Raising taxes “will provide some revenue that will give us an opportunity to perhaps try to start to catch up with some of those road projects.”

        Despite harsh publicity and criticism generated by tax increases, it has been the jail issue that has defined the court and Mr. Murgatroyd.

        The fiscal court has proposed building it in south Covington near Edgewood; adjacent to an Elsmere subdivision; in the existing jail building on Court Street in Covington; in Covington's Peaselburg neighborhood near Interstate 75; and along Covington's Pike Street corridor.

        Vehement opposition from neighbors and businesses usually preceded announcements of new locations.

        “If that's what they call planning, then we need a change, a change in leadership,” said Nathan Smith, a Democratic Party operative from Fort Mitchell.

        Mr. Murgatroyd said the court inherited the jail problem but it was clear why predecessors didn't deal with it. “Why? Because nobody ever figured out how to pay for it. That's why everybody walked away from it.”

        Mr. Murgatroyd said the court is being deliberate, not indecisive “with a $40 million decision that is going to impact this county for 20 years. I'm not about to jump into that thing just to make everybody happy that we made a decision.”

        Beyond its importance, the intensity of the jail furor puzzles him: “For some reason (the jail) has become the entire focal point of our administration and I guess I wonder why.”

        GOP strategist Hayes Robertson of Covington said the jail generates bad press but he does not see it exciting many people.

        “Outside of a small minority of voters that are directly affected by it, it's not an issue that is going to make or break an election,” said Mr. Robertson, who is managing Eric Deters' Kenton County attorney campaign.

        Mr. Murgatroyd said his re-election campaign will cost $150,000 to $200,000 and he will hire a consultant and open a campaign office before summer ends.

        Unlike the high-profile jail, he ticks off a list of accomplishments and ideas he contends won't grab a lot of attention, including:

        • Forming a task force to study growth and the county's delivery of services to the once-rural but fast-growing areas south of Taylor Mill and Independence.

        • Installing the first countywide severe weather alert system.

        • Providing funding and assistance for water lines to Visalia Elementary, sidewalks in Fort Wright and Villa Hills and parks in Covington, Crescent Springs, Taylor Mill, Independence and Ryland Heights.

        • Developing a county recreation master plan.

        • Installing a new and significantly upgraded emergency dispatch system.

        • Forming a group to study the county's transportation system. Funded by the state, the group will work with the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments on a pilot program that other counties in Greater Cincinnati might implement.

        “Our job is to maintain services that we provide to the best of our ability,” Mr. Murgatroyd said. “People may take exception to (this) but I think overall we've done a pretty good job.”


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