A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Covington takes step to reclaim storm water program; incentives approved for CovTech, Gravity Diagnostics

By Ryan Clark
NKyTribune reporter

The simple fact, officials said, is that Covington has not received the kind of service it needs. And the city can do it on its own. At least part of it.

That was what Commissioners heard in a presentation at their regularly-scheduled legislative meeting Tuesday night from City Solicitor Michael Bartlett, who spoke on the topic of reclaiming responsibility for the city’s MS4 (or Municipal Separate Sewer System) Storm Water Program.

Describing the situation as a “very basic philosophical disagreement” between the city and the Sanitation District 1, Covington Mayor Joseph U. Meyer expanded on what was seen in the presentation, describing how this is only reclaiming the storm water portion, not the combined or sanitary sewer system programs.

The permit for the MS4 is about protecting water quality, not quantity, Bartlett said. And it’s something SD1 has not been doing, Mayor Meyer said. Since 2003, the residents of Covington have paid $27 million in stormwater fees, he said, and have gotten little in return.

“The city and SD1, through various agreements, have partnered to administer the city’s MS4 stormwater permit program since 2003,” city documents read. “There have been significant problems with the current relationship and recent attempts to improve the relationship or reach a mutually agreeable separation solution have stalled. City staff believes residents would be better served by the city regaining sole responsibility for its MS4 stormwater permit program.”

Some of those problems include public health issues, such as dirty water backing up into basements. “It’s clear that Covington issues are not a priority (for SD1),” Meyer said. “They’ve overlooked their public health responsibilities.”

It was made even more clear to Meyer when SD1’s five-year plan was released, showing just $2.9 million devoted to the city’s stormwater issues, he said. That would not work.

So instead, Covington would like to apply for the permit to reclaim responsibility, which would in essence give the city control of the use of the stormwater fees. Then they could decide how to best use the funds. Mayor Meyer noted that this would not solve all of the flooding problems in the area, but at least the city could then decide what to do with the citizens’ money.

Commissioners voted 4-1 Tuesday to approve the order, which authorizes the city to proceed with documents to apply to the Kentucky Division of Water to regain sole responsibility for the operation.

Adam Chaney, executive director of SD1, requested to speak to the commissioners at the meeting Tuesday, which was once again held online due to COVID-19 restrictions. But because of the online environment, the Mayor said it would be fine for Chaney to respond with a letter, which was read aloud.

In it, Chaney expressed regret that the city was looking to manage its own stormwater duties, saying that “grievances should not cloud” the judgment of the commission, and keep them from providing for their citizens.

Commissioner Tim Downing took exception. “(Chaney) doesn’t want hindsight to cloud our judgment of the future, but that’s all we have,” he said.

Commissioner Michelle Williams went further. “I have worked with SD1 on a few projects, and it never works out,” she said. “That letter is not trustworthy.”

Commissioner Denny Bowman was the lone dissenter, noting that he did not blame SD1 for their performance. “I think they’ve done the best they can,” he said.

For the city to have its own permit, Bartlett said they would need to develop a storm water quality management program, which included six minimum controls, or goals:

• Public Education and Outreach
• Public Involvement and Participation
• Illicit Discharge Detection and Elimination
• Construction Site Storm Water Runoff Control
• Post-Construction Storm Water Management in New Development and Redevelopment
• Pollution Prevention/Good Housekeeping for Municipal Operation

In order to regain control of the stormwater management, Bartlett said the city must adopt three ordinances related to the topic (essentially, three of the six minimum controls) and maintain things like stormwater system mapping and street cleanings.

Bartlett said the city could handle this, and some activities — like street sweeping and vacuum trucks — were already being utilized by Covington workers. Meyer noted it would only cost 15 to 20 percent of what residents pay in fees.

Downing, as well as Mayor Meyer, made sure to note that this does not mean anything has been finalized. If, for instance, SD1 wanted to come back to the table and discuss the issue more, the Commission would listen.

“But as it stands right now,” Downing said, “we are not getting the response we need.”

Façade Grant for CovTech

Commissioners approved a large façade loan to CovTech, the consortium that is taking over half of the Latonia Shopping Center. The $100,000 forgivable loan will involve adding greenspace to the parking area, and the entire exterior should be finished by December 2021, City Economic Development Director Tom West said. In a presentation last week, he called the $5-$7 million private investment a “very strategic investment for the city.”

Commissioners wondered just why the loan was necessary, and West responded that the city’s strategy should be to market the change in the area. He said the city should use it as a catalyst for a ripple effect in Latonia, to attract others to purchase buildings and do the same. He also noted that multiple other interested parties are looking at major investments in the area around Latonia.

Gravity Diagnostics Gets Incentives

A local company that is helping in the COVID cause got some incentives Tuesday night when Commissioners voted to approve the order.

Gravity Diagnostics — a laboratory whose services provide, among other things, COVID-19 testing — recently partnered with Kroger and expanded its employee base from 20 to 150 since the start of COVID-19. It plans to double that over the next three years. That means they need to move, and they intend to do just that, from 632 Russell St., to a block south to the old Remke’s headquarters, a 17,000-square-foot facility at 812 Russell St. West said the company will be making a $3.7 million investment, with their employees averaging salaries of $50,000 per year.

West proposed a seven-year agreement with Gravity, with a 1 percent payroll reimbursement for the first three years and a half-percent reimbursement for the fourth year. The city expects to realize $4 of new revenue for every $1 spent.

CARES funding request

The commission approved Mayor Meyer to sign up for $2.9 million in CARES funding. Through the Coronavirus Relief Fund, the CARES Act “provides for payments to state, local, and tribal governments navigating the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak,” its government website says. 

The next regularly-scheduled Covington Commission meeting will be a caucus meeting held at 6 p.m., Aug. 18. The meeting can be followed live on Fioptics channel 815, Spectrum channel 203, the Telecommunications Board of Northern Kentucky (TBNK) website, the TBNK Facebook page @TBNKonline, and the TBNK Roku channels.

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