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Watts files for seventh term as county judge

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By Randy Patrick

Dean Watts has had two careers — one in retail and the other in local government.

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He worked 21 years in the Shapira family’s general store business, working his way up from cleaning the floors to supervising the stores. And he has been Nelson’s county judge-executive for 24 years.

What he’s found from those experiences is that constituent service isn’t that different from customer service, and it makes a difference.

“I was able to take what I learned in the retail business on the private side and translate it into the government operation side and just become very comfortable with it,” he said. “Treating people the way you generally would want to be treated is important, and listening to people, whether you agree or disagree with them.”

Watts, who has grown comfortable and confident in his role as the county’s chief executive, filed his papers Wednesday for a seventh term.

His only opponent is fellow Democrat Kenny Fogle, who has challenged him before.

Watts was first elected in 1993, defeating three-term incumbent County Judge Mike Abell, and four years ago he won a three-way race that included Republican Peter Trzop and independent Tim Hutchins.

Besides treating people with courtesy, he said, he attributes his past electoral success to working with the Fiscal Court to keep property owners’ taxes low.

“It’s a whole penny less than it was in 1993, and that’s significant,” he said, referring to Nelson County’s current real estate tax rate of $1.43 per $1,000.

In 1993, the county’s assessed property value was $619 million. Today it’s $2.6 billion.

That growth has allowed the county government to grow revenue while keeping property taxes reasonable, he said.

Economic development is something he works at all the time, he said. It goes back to the retailer’s emphasis on hospitality.

“Make people feel welcome. Not only are we here when we’re recruiting you, but we’re also here for the duration, and I think that’s important,” he said.

Watts said he takes pride in sound management of the county’s resources and finances, and that’s going to be imperative in the next term, in part because of the state’s troubled pension funds. Next year the county is expecting a $775,000 cost increase for employee pensions, he said.

“We’re going to have to deal with that, and I think I’ve got the experience,” he said.

One critical issue that is “staring us in the face,” Watts said, is that of jail overcrowding. Earlier this year, he said the county will probably have to build a new jail in the not-too-distant future, maybe near the courthouse, but Tuesday he said he was studying options for resolving the issue.

In general, he doesn’t think the next term is going to be an era of big projects.

“Money’s going to be tight over the next four years,” he said. “We have to watch our expenses and manage those expenses with the revenues that are coming in.”

Sometimes money is tight for families, too, and one of the things he’s most proud of is the monthly Feeding America food distribution program at the Nelson County Fairgrounds. He is personally involved in volunteering for it.

He also has served in several other leadership capacities, as chairman of the boards of the Nelson County Community Clinic, Nazareth Homes, the Lincoln Trail District Health Department and the Lincoln Trail Area Development District.

During his last term, and that of former Bardstown Mayor John Royalty, the two were often at loggerheads over city-county services, and some of those have separated, such as the city and county fire departments and recreation programs.

“Putting them back together again probably won’t happen, but that doesn’t mean you can’t cooperate, and I think there’s a lot of that going on right now,” especially with the fire departments, he said.

There’s also more cooperation in law enforcement, and the city and county were able to keep the joint dispatch program together.

Some have been critical of what they see as Watts’ dominant management style, but the current magistrates are no pushovers, he said, and people don’t see what goes on behind the scenes, in one-on-one negotiations and in committee meetings.

As county judge, he said, it’s his responsibility to try and achieve unity among people with different ideas and personalities, and he thinks he and the magistrates have done that. There are few split votes, he noted.

“The public doesn’t want to see all that bickering. They want to see a resolution to the issue at hand,” he said.

A collaborative approach is important because “my way or the highway” doesn’t work, he said.

It’s also important to be bipartisan, he noted. Nelson County, long a bastion of the Democratic Party, has been trending more Republican, and the legislators who represent Nelson County, from Frankfort to Washington, are all Republicans.

Watts said he has a good working relationship with them, especially state Sen. Jimmy Higdon of Lebanon and state Rep. Chad McCoy of Bardstown.

Often county judges are rural politicians, but Watts grew up in Bardstown a couple of blocks from his office on Court Square and “loves downtown,” he said. He walks a couple of miles every day.

A Catholic, he attended St. Monica School and Bardstown High School, is a member of St. Joseph Parish and is active in the Knights of Columbus.

He never went to college, he said, because at 19 he was managing one of the Shapiras’ stores. He later worked for them in Louisville as a buyer and supervisor of all their retail stores in Central Kentucky. While his friends moved away, he stayed.

Watts and his wife Katy have one daughter, Madeline.

He said he “doesn’t have a lot of hobbies,” so public service is his avocation.

“I really believe that God put me on this earth to be a people person,” he said. “When I see that I can help people, that’s probably as rewarding as anything you can do.”