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Why steady funding is so elusive for Louisville’s anti-violence agency

A man speaks into a microphone.
Louisville Metro TV
Paul Callanan discussed the Office for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods budget at a May 20, 2024 Metro Council hearing.

A decade after its creation, the Office for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods is still fighting for funding. Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg’s proposed spending plan would bring more cuts.

To Anthony Smith, the Office for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods has never struggled with focus.

Funding, on the other hand, hasn’t come so easy.

Smith was the first person to lead the city agency that’s tasked with the important, albeit complicated, job of reducing violence, particularly among young people. From the outset, the goal was audacious — create the safest big city in America — and the budget was small.

The agency initially received $102,000 in city funds. Since then, funding has ebbed and flowed and the agency has struggled to gain support from skeptical lawmakers who’ve criticized the OSHN’s management, purpose and results.

Now, the agency is facing another round of proposed budget cuts. And they come as the city struggles to rein in a surging pattern of violence among young people.

Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg wants to slash $2 million from the OSHN’s budget. A reduction that the agency’s director, Paul Callanan, said will lead to a 60% reduction in contract work for community services.

During a budget hearing this week, Callanan told Metro Council members that, despite the cuts, he supports Greenberg’s budget plan.

“I understand that there's a challenge within our city, that we have a lot of organizations around the city that have needs, that have positions that need to be filled, and our agency is a discretionary fund agency, which means we're not mandated by any ordinance to provide direct services,” Callahan said.

He said the agency is eyeing several federal grants to hopefully fill the void.

Since its creation more than a decade ago, OSHN has had difficulty getting and keeping funding. It took five years before the agency received more than a million dollars annually in city funding. Recent spikes in funding are thanks, largely, to the infusion of federal COVID-19 relief funds.

The specific contracts that will be cut under Greenberg’s proposed spending plan are not yet known.

“We're evaluating that right now,” Greenberg said in a press briefing this month.

Whatever the cuts are, Smith said the impacts will be far-reaching.

“Any cut means we have less people on the street who are doing life saving work,” he said in an interview this month with KyCIR. “And if our goal is to reduce the number of people who are shot and are killed by gun violence, then we should be investing and not reducing the number of dollars that we’re giving to the work.”

Former Mayor Greg Fischer created the OSHN in 2013 after a triple-homicide sparked community-wide reflection on violence reduction. That year, Louisville Metro Police reported 45 homicides. By last year, the annual count of homicides had tripled to 134.

A report last year from the local nonprofit Greater Louisville Project examined how a wave of homicides involving young people came in the wake of budget cuts to youth development programming. The report emphasized the need for sustainable funding for agencies like OSHN.

Convincing lawmakers to provide that funding can be difficult because the results from OSHN aren’t immediate and can take years to show themselves in a community, said Rashaad Abdur-Rahman, a former director of OSHN from the end of 2015 to early 2020.

Department of Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods Director Rashaad Abdur-Rahman talks public safety during an hour-long news special on WFPL.
Photo by J. Tyler Franklin
Department of Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods Director Rashaad Abdur-Rahman talks public safety during an hour-long news special on WFPL.

But the local police department — set for a 9% increase under Greenberg’s spending plan — is rarely held to the same standard of scrutiny, he said.

“For many, many years, we have been having a conversation that we're not going to police and incarcerate our way into a safer city, but the reality in the budget has been that we have continued to invest in policing and incarcerating our way to a safer city with zero results,” Abdur-Rahman said.

Both Abdur-Rahman and Smith said the city’s funding choices often reflect an incomplete view of public safety — one that sees police and jails as the driving forces that keep people safe.

“And what we’re saying is they’re not,” Smith said.

Smith, who now works as the executive director of Cities United, pointed to a 2019 study from Philadelphia that found investing in “proven violence reduction” strategies — like the programs OSHN advocates for — could lead to 10% fewer homicides each year.

And each killing comes at a cost.

A recent report by the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform found that each fatal shooting in Louisville costs taxpayers about $900,000.

“If it's not the people dying that's gonna get you, how do we just talk about the economics of this,” Smith asked. “Why would we keep spending that much money as a city, and as a country, when we can actually prevent this — and we’ve seen it work?”

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