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League of Women Voters to Study Council Discretionary Funds

In the wake of growing scrutiny around city spending, the Louisville League of Women Voters plans to launch a year-long examination of how Metro Council members use their hefty discretionary funds.Each fiscal year city lawmakers receive $75,000 in Neighborhood Development Funds for community groups and $100,000 in Capital Infrastructure Funds for building projects, which they are allowed to transfer to the lower account.In recent months, those tax dollars have received more attention due to the ethics charges involving Councilwoman Judy Green, D-1, a controversy over Kroger gift card purchases and questions about $2.8 million in unused building funds from previous fiscal years.League Vice President Victoria Markell says it’s time to look at where the money is being spent and how the system can be improved in the wake of those scandals.“Our concern stems from wanting to have an effective and transparent government. We need to know where the money comes from and where it goes. If there are pots of money sitting around that could be used to take care of the city business then we certainly want to look into that,” she says.In response to the gift card controversy, Council President Jim King, D-10, has sought legal advice from the county attorney’s office to review the practice. He also asked the city auditor to inspect council office expenditures, including all Kroger card purchases for the last three fiscal years.The council is also considering changes to neighborhood fund policies, including additional oversight after completing an audit of those expenditures.Reaction to the series of stories on discretionary funds has been mixed on the council, however. Republican lawmakers have called for more oversight and cuts to the funds while council Democrats have defended the practices as necessary for poorer districts that have helped citizens and non-profit groups."I don't know if the council Democrats have done a very good job up until recently of defending this practice. But I don't think we're going to have to defend it as much as explain why the money is going to these groups and how it's helping those folks more than anything else," says Democratic caucus spokesperson Tony Hyatt."I don't think caucus members are surprised about the league's study given the climate of the concerns that have been raised recently with the situations involving  District 1," he says."There are a lot of people raising questions and as a council this is an opportunity to show how we spend the money."In the next few weeks the league will begin hosting a series of public meetings to debate the funds use and gather ideas from constituents.The study will then compare Louisville's council to other similar cities while examining safeguards that other local governments have against financial abuse. After it is completion, the study will be forwarded with its recommendations to the council for consideration.Asked if the public is losing trust in the city legislature, Markell says the public simply wants more intimate details about where those tax dollars are going and to whom."In the time of a budget shortfall like this the council members have to be prepared," she says. "All of them should be looking at taking cuts to their funds as well as the overall city budget."The funds will also be the subject of a Louisville Forum debate next Wednesday, featuring President King and council members David James, Ken Fleming, R-7 and Jerry Miller, R-19, who will discuss whether the council should reform or discard the discretionary spending process.