2018 in Review: Transformation at City Hall

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COVINGTON, Ky. - More consistent code enforcement. More active communications. More strategic use of business incentive programs to make sure residents also benefit. Better investment of capital sitting in the City’s bank accounts. A more logical organization within City Hall focused on service delivery.
 
City of Covington informational bulletins over the last year have chronicled a blow-by-blow description of changes, new policies, and programs at City Hall - but while daily readers might have noticed the fast pace of the activity, even those paying close attention might not recognize the collective impact of what amounts to a meticulous overhaul of City government.
 
The goal? Better services.
 
“When I became City Manager in fall 2017, I set an immediate goal: To improve the work we do for the citizens of Covington in a meaningful way,” said David Johnston, the City’s top administrator. “We needed to be efficient, professional, motivated, and cognizant of how what we do on a daily basis can and should strengthen the City and make people’s lives better. So over the last year we changed the structure and the culture at City Hall.”
 
Some of the changes are visible to the public. Many others are mostly invisible.
 
But together they create a government better equipped to provide top-notch services in a strategic, focused way.
 
“From new policies to better software to experienced department heads, we’ve made targeted investments that will enable us to create a better Covington,” Johnston said. “People who’ve followed along have recognized the transformation, and they say the energy at City Hall now matches the vibrancy felt throughout downtown.”
 
Among the developments in 2018:
 
REORGANIZATION: One of the biggest changes, Johnston said, was a reorganization of City Hall aimed at delivering services in a more effective, logical, and direct manner.
 
The plan divides City Hall into two sections: 
  • Service departments, those that work directly with residents and businesses: Economic Development, Fire, Neighborhood Services, Police, and Public Works. 
  • And Support departments, those that strengthen the work of the Service departments: Administration, Finance and Legal. 
The new structure is straight-forward, with logical groupings designed to create clear lines of authority, responsibility, and accountability, as well as to avoid both overlap and “lost” obligations, Johnston said.
 
To make the reorganization succeed, he said, the City made a concerted effort to fill vacancies with Department heads, managers, and other mid-level staff with years if not decades of experience in their fields and who would act vigorously to deliver the high level of services that Covington residents and businesses deserve.
 
BUDGET: In June, Covington passed a structurally balanced $97 million all-funds budget that added $1.9 million more to its Rainy Day Fund, did not raise taxes, doubled a small-business incentive program, set aside money for investing in neighborhood business districts and added police officers and neighborhood health and safety inspectors. City leaders said at the time that the budget “takes decisive action to strengthen the City and enhance the lives of its residents.”
 
SMALL BUSINESSES: Covington doubled to $150,000 the allocation for two popular incentive programs that help neighborhood businesses - façade improvements and first-year rent subsidies - and expanded the program’s geographic boundaries to include the whole city. It also adopted an evaluation system that favors businesses that will bring a high return to the City and surrounding neighborhood business districts. Two rounds of funding have already been allocated.
 
RIPPLE EFFECT: A new program aimed at energizing a selected neighborhood business area was kicked off this past fall, with the City offering not only staff time but also $300,000 for direct public improvements. “The RIPPLE Effect” is a competitive program that will focus City resources and services in a coordinated fashion to maximize the impact of public investments in an area. Eligible partners include community groups or councils, neighborhood associations, and associations or organizations that represent neighborhood businesses or business interests. The City held an open house Oct. 30 to begin the process and will soon evaluate the first round of proposals.
 
CODE ENFORCEMENT: The division that ensures that the living and working environment within Covington’s neighborhoods is healthy and safe was completely refashioned in 2018. All eight of the inspectors are new, training was formalized, the records system was updated, expanded staff enabled a focus on problem areas of the City, and the division’s philosophy regarding enforcement was made more consistent.
 
COMMUNICATIONS: Wanting to be more strategic and active in keeping residents informed, the City created a communications division and hired a full-time communicator in 2018, drastically increasing the volume of information it distributes about City services, programs, initiatives, policies, employees, and activities. “Stories” not only tout events and City Commission votes but also seek to educate and engage residents about policy, goals, challenges, and issues affecting life in Covington.
 
GARBAGE PICKUP: To help residents get rid of garbage that doesn’t fit in their City-issued carts, Covington eliminated its controversial Green Sticker program and went to a policy of allowing residents to set out one bulk item a week. It also reduced fines for garbage violations to make them more proportional to the violation and returned the billing process to the City.
 
INVESTMENTS POLICY:Adoption of an expanded and strategic investments policy governing cash in City accounts proved a financial windfall for Covington taxpayers in 2018, with $106,000 in interest earnings after only four months. The change was just one example of new policies and procedures instituted after the arrival of Finance Director Muhammed Owusu.
 
The Finance Department also: hired a revenue collection manager and two tax auditors to maximize tax collection and segregate revenue and expenditure duties as a deterrent to fraud ... created a procurement officer position to streamline the procurement process ... consolidated bank accounts to save money ... instituted a fraud deterrent service called “positive pay” ... began creating policies related to debt, procurement, and the Rainy Day Fund ... is creating a five-year financial planning and budgeting model ... and is working with credit-rating agencies to try to raise the City’s rating for future bond issuances.
 
iWorQ: Residents who see a pothole, a crumbling sidewalk, broken parks equipment, or other infrastructure problem can now use an online tool and phone app to report it to the City. The iWorQ Service Request App software was unveiled this summer to make it easier and quicker for residents to get a problem fixed, to give them the option of submitting photos, and to let them track requests. Internally, it has saved tremendous amounts of staff time, has increased the efficiency of work assignments and record-keeping, and has enabled supervisors to pull data easier and keep track of employees and equipment on a real-time basis.
 
READ READY COVINGTON: The City unveiled a childhood literacy initiative in November designed to mobilize the entire community around getting the City’s youngest children off to a better start in their school career. Called “Read Ready Covington,” the initiative aims to increase the percentage of children who enter kindergarten prepared and able to do the work, and to increase the percentage of children reading on grade level by the end of the third grade. Almost two dozen community partners are helping the City push the use of early literacy apps, implement and publicize a marketing campaign, and get books in the hands of parents.
 
ETHICS: City Hall strengthened and modernized its Code of Ethics in 2018 after a committee of elected leaders spent January reviewing the old code and hearing from the public and outside experts. City directors and managers attended a training session in April led by the executive director of the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission. It stressed prohibitions against using City resources to help political campaigns, misuse of confidential information, political solicitations, patronage, gifts, conflict of interests, and falsely impugning reputations.
 
PARKING:Covington laid the groundwork for an entirely new approach to managing parking this year with the creation of the Covington Motor Vehicle Parking Authority. The five-member citizens board will oversee the City’s parking assets, evaluate needs, set rates, and analyze potential investments. The goal is to treat and manage parking as a commodity rather than an afterthought, to create an operation that pays for itself, and to take a holistic approach to managing supply, concerns, and issues. The board began meeting, organizing, and establishing its legal authority and contracts in 2018.
 
IRB INCENTIVES POLICY: The City also refined policies governing use of an incentive tool for large economic development projects called industrial revenue bonds. The goal is to ensure that business growth benefits residents instead of undercutting the ability of the City to pay for services. The new policy puts a bigger focus on making sure that projects create a positive return on investment for the City.
 
WESTERN GATEWAY: A $875,000 reconstruction of the western entrance to Covington’s riverfront to make it safer and more accessible to pedestrians was begun in 2018. The project includes the full reconstruction of Johnson Street/Rivercenter Boulevard from Third Street east to the Northern Kentucky Convention Center. The City wants to better connect hotels to the west with a range of attractions to the east, including the Convention Center, restaurants and offices in the RiverCenter complex, the Roebling Point District, and the Roebling Suspension Bridge.
 
STRATEGIC PLANS: Over the latter half of 2018, the City set in motion the formulation of a half dozen long-term studies and strategic plans that will dictate how Covington looks and develops for decades to come. While much could be written about each plan, the synopsis is thus: 
  • In August, Atlanta-based Cooper Carry was selected to help Covington create a conceptual master plan (and acquire legal development authority) for 23 acres near the riverfront that will be freed up when the Internal Revenue Service shuts down its paper-processing facility later this year. The goal is to attract jobs and offset the payroll tax revenue that will be lost when the IRS leaves.
  • In August, the City contracted with Planning Development Services of Kenton County to study the impact of converting to two-way traffic the sections of Scott Street and Greenup Boulevard - two of Covington’s busiest north-south corridors - in neighborhood areas between 20th Street and ML King Jr. Boulevard/12thStreet.
  • In September, YARD & Company, a Bellevue-based urban growth firm, was chosen to begin studying the role and function of a new City Hall, should the City decide to build one to replace the temporary and ill-equipped home it rents on Pike Street. In November, a 16-member citizens task force was created to formally bring public input to the process.
  • In October, the City Commission told staff to take a 136-page draft study of downtown design standards - put together in an effort led by local business groups and other partners - and turn it into a legislative proposal. The City wants to bring order and consistency to the numerous elements that determine both how its downtown looks and functions. Such “elements” include everything from sidewalks to outdoor seating to utility infrastructure to street trees, public art and signage.
  • In November, Texas-based Kendig Keast Collaborative was selected to do a comprehensive rewrite of Covington’s unwieldy and outdated Zoning Ordinance. The goal is to turn it into a neighborhood development code that recognizes the City’s historic character and better identifies and prescribes opportunities for adaptive reuse, infill, and redevelopment, while speeding up the costly and time-consuming process for developers and rehabbers.
  • In December, Georgia-based Garner Economics was selected to spend the first seven months of 2019 creating an overarching strategy in the City for business attraction, retention, expansion, and entrepreneurial support over the next five years. “This will be an action plan, not one that collects dust,” vowed Economic Development Director Tom West. 
Some of the items listed above were on a list of 23 policy “priorities” passed by the Covington City Commission in July as a guide for the ongoing modernization at City Hall and the heightened focus on services.
 
Codified in an ordinance, the list includes aforementioned goals like a citywide economic development strategy, revisions to the zoning code, and the new IRB incentives policy. It also includes development of citywide plans for housing and sidewalk repairs.
 
But the list also includes an array of goals related to internal policies and logistics. These include development of better procedures related to things like procurement, records retention, contract management, the Rainy Day Fund and other “forced” savings mechanisms, updated job descriptions and salary schedules, and financial management.
 
Some of these internal policies have been completed, others are under way.
 
“Good customer service can’t occur without an efficient framework of procedures and practices,” Mayor Joe Meyer said about the priority list when it was adopted. “That framework flows from good policy, and policy stems from clear vision. With this ordinance, we’re setting that vision, and we’re doing it in a way that creates accountability and discipline.”
 
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