Monday, January 21, 2002

Jail funding tied up in lawsuit

By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Two Kenton County administrations have invested nearly four years and more than $2.1 million in their search for an alternative to the crowded, inefficient jail near Covington's riverfront.

        In the past four years, officials in two administrations have considered more than 50 potential jail sites.

        “The only reason we're not closer is because we're being held up by the court system,” said Kenton County Commissioner Adam Koenig. “If we hadn't been sued (over a payroll tax cap increase to fund the jail), we'd have a big hole in the ground at 303 Court St.”

        Although Kenton Fiscal Court voted in December 2000 to expand the jail in the county administration building on Court Street, county officials later considered building a jail and county offices at a site at Pike and Washington streets in Covington.

        For now, talk of any site is a moot point, county officials say, as they await a ruling on their appeal of a Kenton Circuit Court judge's decision that effectively killed much of the county's year-old payroll tax increase. The increase was needed to help pay for a new jail, but a decision on the appeal could be at least two years away, they say.

        “A site is irrelevant if you don't have the money to pay for it,” said Kenton County Commissioner Barb Black. “It's frustrating to have come up with not only a preferred site, but a mechanism for funding it, and to be spending taxpayer money for up to two years” on the litigation challenging the payroll tax cap increase.

        Kenton County's latest search for a jail site began in March 1998 under the administration of Kenton County Judge-executive Biz Cain. Before leaving office in December 1998, that fiscal court recommended building a jail at Ky. 17 (3L Highway) and I-275 in Covington. However, that site generated opposition from residents of nearby Edgewood and Fort Wright. In September 2001, the fiscal court rejected the 3L site, saying it was too expensive.

        According to county records, costs related to the possible expansion or relocation of the Kenton County Detention Center are:

        • Legal fees in defense of occupational license fee case: $41,047

        • Jail studies and consultant: $553,108. Those include site studies from July 1998 through June, 1999, $123,488; site studies and associated expenses from July 1999 through June 2000, $31,513; consultant and design fees from July 2000 through June 2001, $398,106.

        The county also spent $1.56 million for the March 2001 purchase of the Preston building at 501 Main St. in Covington, and costs related to the furnishing, building equipment and painting and maintenance of that property. After voting in December 2000 to expand the jail in the county administration building, the fiscal court said that it needed to move some county offices to the Preston building.

        The county receives $7,053 in monthly rent from the Prestonbuilding's three tenants, according to county records. Since purchasing the building 10 months ago, the county has collected $96,963 in rent.

        Mr. Koenig, Mrs. Black and Kenton County Commissioner Dan Humpert said that the Preston building is in a prime location and is a good investment for the county, regardless of whether it is being used as originally intended.

        “When they build the new I-75 bridge, they will take all the property to the west of that building,” Mr. Humpert said. “I see (the Preston building) as an investment.”

        If the litigation over the payroll tax cap hike takes years to resolve, Mrs. Black said the Preston building may provide temporary relief for the county's crowded jail.

        “We at least would have the option of moving some of the administrative offices out of (the county) building and remodeling those floors so that the jailer can use them,” she said. “It's not a bad investment when it may give us additional time to ward off the possible intervention of the federal court.”


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