Tomlinson to retire from office in 2014

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By Jeff Moore

Carroll County voters face the challenge of selecting a new judge-executive this year as the man affectionately known as “Shorty” prepares to retire at the end of 2014.

As he begins his 16th year as judge-executive and completes his third consecutive term in the county’s top elected position, Harold “Shorty” Tomlinson says he’s looking forward to being away from the pressures and responsibilities of the job to spend time with his family.

“I’ve enjoyed what I’ve done,” Tomlinson said in a Friday interview at his office in the courthouse. He is clearly proud of his accomplishments through the years, but sees many things he would like to complete in the months ahead.

His top priority remains getting the state to fund the new campus for Jefferson Community and Technical College in Carrollton.

“It’s something that is truly needed to prepare our workforce in this region of Kentucky,” he said.

The JCTC project has made the state budget several times and was once vetoed by former Gov. Ernie Fletcher. “That takes a little wind out of your sail,” he said.

Other times it was removed during the budget negotiations between the state House and state Senate.

Tomlinson believes the project has a good chance this year if Gov. Steve Beshear places it in his budget. He said a lot of people are “pumped up” about the college campus project now that a design firm has been hired for the project.

As part of his work, he spends a lot of time talking with officials from the industries located in Carroll County.

Tomlinson said there are a lot of retirements on the horizon, which means there will be a lot of good jobs opening up with good pay and great benefits.

These jobs and the fact that many people may not want to attend a four-year college away from home make the proposed JCTC campus extremely important to the community.

Among Tomlinson’s top priorities over the next 11 months are replacing some bridges in the county. He said he will continue to work on getting projects such as the bridge on Dripping Springs completed and the construction of the new one on U.S. 42 above Dow Corning on track to be built as part of the road improvements planned from there to the Ghent city limits.

Another issue that is at the top of his concerns is the heroin problem Carroll County is facing.

“We went a long time and no one would say we’ve had the problem,” Tomlinson said. To address such a problem, he said you have to “admit you’ve got a problem.”

While the county has now admitted it has the heroin problem, it’s not something that officials can legislate their way out of, he said.

He said people who deal on the treatment, judicial and prison sides of the issue are looking at what they can do to battle the heroin problem. He said it’s a big concern of his and he is committed to doing what he can to help.

A Carroll County native, Tomlinson said he went to work at M&T Chemical right after graduating from high school. He said M&T’s personnel manager Don Carlson got him working the day after graduation so he would qualify for vacation that year.

He worked there 22 years.

During that time he began his work with local government as a member of Worthville City Commission. He then moved up to be the city’s mayor for a term or two.

Along the way, Tomlinson also was chief for Worthville Volunteer Fire Department.

While it was on a much smaller scale, he said it gave him a good understanding of how government worked. This is where he learned about the Northern Kentucky Area Development District, Tomlinson said. He recalls working on projects in Worthville with John Mays, who is now retired as the NKADD director, while he was still a planner there.

With his involvement in city government, Tomlinson was encouraged to run for a seat on fiscal court, winning his first race as magistrate from District 3. He served the last four years that Judge-Executive Robert Westrick was in office. When Westrick announced he was retiring, Tomlinson decided to run for his office and won.

It was a tough time to take over that job, with the many challenges facing Carroll County. County government had a deficit and didn’t have a jail, which left it spending a large amount to house inmates elsewhere.

Tomlinson said that’s when they decided to go for a grant to help with construction of the new detention center, which they were able to build and have paid off in five years. He said the county did this without a massive debt.

He also had to do what proved unpopular at the time and impose the county’s payroll tax to help shore up the county’s financial position. That new tax took effect at the same time as North American Stainless came to town.

Tomlinson lost his bid for re-election to Gene McMurry at the end of his first term.

From the county’s top job, he was hired as the first local manager at General Butler State Resort Park. Tomlinson led the work to build the new convention center at the park and to renovate the lodge.

During his time as judge-executive, he had worked to try to secure funding for a new convention center at the park. When he was hired, he took on the task of building that facility and overseeing a renovation of the lodge.

Tomlinson remained at the park for close to eight years, before many people convinced him to make another run for judge-executive in 1990. He said it was difficult leaving a good job with the uncertainty of running for election.

Ultimately, he did win and has won re-election twice.

While he has really enjoyed being judge-executive, Tomlinson said it has come with its difficult moments.

These include the 2013 bus tragedy and the days when a financial crisis nearly closed the local hospital. The county had to step up to loan it money to keep the doors open.

Another difficult phase was during his first term as judge-executive when he had to make tough choices due to the county’s poor financial condition.

Today, the county has nearly $6 million in reserve, a healthy condition that is the envy of many other localities across the state and around the nation.

Building this reserve may be attributed to how Tomlinson funds projects. He said he always tries to look for grant money or funding to help relieve the burden on county taxpayers.

“That really helps your budget,” he said.

When something arises, people often want to just move forward and get something going. However, he said by waiting and looking at options that are available, he has been able to secure a lot of money to cover the cost of projects in the county.

He pointed to the work on many bridges where the county worked with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and received reimbursement for 80 percent of the cost for replacements.

Early last year, the cooling system at the Wheeler Hall of Justice would not work and the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts said it did not have the money to replace the equipment. The county chose to fix the unit for a smaller amount and got it running again.

It broke down this fall again, he said, and AOC had the money to install a new system at no cost to the county.

Tomlinson said flooding over recent years also made funding available for watershed improvement projects, where he was able to secure 75 percent funding from the federal government toward the $3.5 million project to clear local streams. He then secured state approval to cover 75 percent of the county’s 25 percent cost for the work.

This work put more than 40 contractors to work and helped the local economy with a lot of federal and state watershed money, Tomlinson said.

“Grants are tough to get,” he said. But he said it’s sometimes important to wait and see what funds can be acquired. After a project is done, these agencies won’t help with funding.

Tomlinson also is pleased about the tax relief he and fiscal court have been able to offer county residents over the past 12 years. They have reduced the real estate tax rate from 13.3 cents per $100 to 3.5 cents per $100, which is now the lowest in the state.

He said that not everyone has agreed with the actions he has taken as judge-executive. “I’ve always tried to do what is best for the county,” Tomlinson said.

The county took over a long-term lease of Camp Kysoc to prevent it from being sold off as surplus property by the state, he said. Now, the county has the chance to turn it into something that will benefit the community.

During his term, there has been a lot of talk about the need for a community center.

While some believe fiscal court should take on the debt and build the facility, he said the county would face that price tag of about $6 million and then also have to pay for maintenance and upkeep.

On the other hand, he said the decision to build the detention center has been one that paid off for many years.

With the good work of the jailer, the county has not had to put money into the operation of the jail. Housing inmates from neighboring counties and the state have paid its way.

With so many budget cuts at the state level and the federal sequestration, many are looking to local government to pickup costs that are no longer covered.

“There’s never a dull moment,” he said.

For example, he said he has enough stories from the weddings he has performed to write a book.

He was reminded of his role in this special moment for couples when he was in La Grange with his wife recently. As they were checking out, the woman behind the register said, “You married me!”

There are also times when he said the job makes him feel like a social worker.

Tomlinson said it’s difficult when a mother and her children come in and have no money for food. But he said he has a good working relationship with the churches and food pantries. “I’ve had some really good people to work with,” he said.

Tomlinson said this is a very giving community that is good at coming to the aid of those who are in need. “You can’t be everything to everybody,” he said.

Key to his success has been a good working relationship with magistrates serving on fiscal court.

“I’ve always told my court, I’ll respect your opinion. You vote anyway you want to,” he said. Through the years, they have split on votes.

He only asks magistrates that they not surprise him at a meeting and that he would do the same for them. Because of this, Carroll County has not had “big knock-down, drag outs like you see go on in a lot of places.”

Tomlinson said differences are left in the courtroom. He said he has seen far too much of this in Frankfort and Washington.
“I told somebody the other day, I know I’ve won at least seven elections in Carroll County and people are still speaking to me,” he said. “I rest my case.”

Other than having more time for family, Tomlinson said he hasn’t given a lot of thought to what he will do when he retires.

“Probably after three days at home, I’ll say I should have stayed at that courthouse,” he said. Even though he won’t be in office, he said he will remain a voice on important issues facing the county.

Tomlinson said he believes his family will be happy with his decision to retire.

“It’s not just me sitting in here,” he said. “Sometimes people may not know your kids and your grandkids and they can say some pretty harsh things … and not really mean it in a negative way, the way your kids and grandkids might take it.”

Election time is probably the most difficult in a small community such as Carroll County. “It’s tough on families,” he said.

But he said it’s also been a lot of pressure on him. He pointed to a photo from his Butler state park days that shows his hair was still black. “That wasn’t that long ago,” he said.

“I can tell you whoever sits in this chair is going to have a large responsibility put on their shoulders,” he said. “And when you go home in the evening, it don’t go away.”

If the county’s ambulance doesn’t run, the judge-executive gets a call. And today, this community faces exposures that go with the river, industry, having a National Guard unit, interstate and railway here. “You can’t help but worry about all that,” he said.

But Tomlinson is pleased with what he has been able to do while in office.

“People’s really have been good to me. I’ve got no regrets. Have I done everything to please people, absolutely not. I’ve just done the best I can,” he said. “But the general public has been pretty dag-gone good to me and I’ll always appreciate it all my life.”