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West Louisville Residents, Faith Leaders Join Fight Over City Surplus Funds

The Rev. Clay Calloway speaks to a crowd of supporters.
The Rev. Clay Calloway speaks to a crowd of supporters.

As negotiations over the city's budget surplus continue, another group is seeking a slice of the funds.

The projected $10 million surplus has been the focus of debate among Metro Council members since it was made public earlier this month, with battle lines emerging between Democrats who are split on how to spend the money.

A group of faith leaders and residents is now jumping into the fray, saying more funding should be allocated to grassroots groups working to revitalize economically distressed neighborhoods in West Louisville.

The group gathered Thursday to protest one plan, backed by Mayor Greg Fischer, that would allocate $250,000 to a nonprofit organization looking to revitalize parts of West Louisville. The group is calling that proposal the result of inside connections.

Two Metro Council Democrats have introduced separate surplus spending plans. One of the proposals, sponsored by budget committee chair Marianne Butler of District 15, has Fischer's support. The other was introduced by Councilman Brent Ackerson of District 26.

Butler's plan, which stalled last week in a budget committee meeting, would allot about $4 million of the surplus to capital infrastructure improvements. The rest would be funneled to a smattering of social programs, including drug treatment facility The Healing Place, youth job initiative SummerWorks and West Louisville development initiative OneWest.

Ackerson's plan would send the entire the surplus to capital infrastructure repairs.

Some council members, including Ackerson, Democrat Jessica Green of District 1 and Republican Marilyn Parker of District 19, have likened Butler's spending plan to a "goody grab bag."

Green has taken issue with the plan to provide $250,000 to OneWest. In a Facebook post today, she called the plan "a Christopher Columbus concept if I ever did see one."

"The very thought that indigenous people or indigenous groups don't have the capability, the ability, or the worth to manage significant city funds and to formulate a plan for the neighborhoods that they have had skin in the game for years, is something that I find patriarchal and offensive," she wrote in the post.

Green did not immediately return a request for comment.

The group of residents, which call themselves West Louisville First!, is backing Green, calling foul on Butler's plan — specifically the notion to allot nearly $250,000 to OneWest.

The Rev. Clay Calloway said any investment in West Louisville should be made to "existing, indigenous institutions first, that have a proven track record for economic development, before you consider a fledgling group for something of this nature."

Calloway said groups such as Louisville Central Community Center and home rehabilitation program Jesus And A Job are more deserving than OneWest.

Calloway, speaking above raucous praise from the nearly 75 people gathered at the protest Thursday morning, said grassroots-level development initiatives in West Louisville should always be considered first for surplus funding. He also said any such allocation to West Louisville should be heftier than $250,000.

"We are murdered every time we are not considered in a budget consideration, because government budgets are moral documents and in that document has the seed of life and death," he said.

He pointed to OneWest's leadership, which includes the city's head of economic development, Mary Ellen Wiederwohl, as getting the inside track to the surplus funding.

Butler said she’s yet to see any proposal from the West Louisville First! group regarding potential surplus spending plans.

“Until I see that, then I am going to go with the recommendation to help OneWest," she said.

OneWest was established in 2014 and aims to facilitate broad revitalization efforts in West Louisville.

"We support the notion that a broad range of organizations with varied focus and expertise must be part of economic and wealth-building opportunities in West Louisville," said Jennifer Recktenwald, the group's interim director, in an emailed statement. "The discussion should be framed as 'both/and' rather than 'either/or' regarding the groups and organizations that will lead West Louisville revitalization efforts."

Recktenwald said the $250,000 in city money would leverage private investment. The money would be put into a fund directed at purchasing, maintaining and rehabilitating vacant and abandoned properties in West Louisville.

One aspect of the plan would be to purchase existing tax liens on vacant properties, she said.

"That's just one piece of it," she said. "Really, for us, it's about getting access to vacant properties that have fallen into neglect."

Councilwoman Angela Leet, a Republican who represents District 7 and vice chair of the budget committee, said she supports Green's call to back off the plan to allot the surplus funding to OneWest.

Leet said OneWest should make their plea for city funding during the regular budget process in June, as other social programs are called to do. She said that while OneWest's plan is noble, they can wait for funding since the delinquent tax bills aren't sold by the Jefferson County Clerk until July.

"They don't need the money next week," she said.

The Metro Council's budget committee is set to again discuss the proposed spending plans next week during their regular meeting.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.