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What We Learned From The Candidates For Metro Council's Highlands Seat

The candidates for District 8 at a recent debate in the Highlands.
The candidates for District 8 at a recent debate in the Highlands.

The seven Democratic candidates vying for the District 8 seat on Louisville's Metro Council don't disagree on much.

They met for a debate Thursday night at the St. Paul Methodist Church on Douglass Boulevard in the Highlands, the neighborhood that makes up the district.

The event lasted about 90 minutes and drew nearly 300 people to the church's gymnasium. Some stood in the back due to a lack of chairs, while others shivered to fight the cool of the blasting air conditioning.

This is the most crowded race for Metro Council in this primary election cycle. Longtime Councilman Tom Owen announced last year he wouldn't seek reelection after serving for more than 20 years.

With no Republican registered, it's likely the winner of the May 17 primary will take the seat in November.

Candidates spent a bulk of Thursday's debate discussing broader issues the entire city wrestles with, like Mayor Greg Fischer's push for a local option sales tax and the best way to improve the city's public transit system -- and all agreed there is room for improvement.

New Taxes To Fund Specific Projects

Stephen Reily, an entrepreneur and principal behind the West Louisville FoodPort, said he supports the effort to establish a local option sales tax for the state. He acknowledged the tax's regressive nature but said it could help fund desired projects in Louisville.

"I don't see any other tools right now that we can actually put to work," he said.

Chris Kolb, a Spalding University professor, said he opposes any regressive tax.

"It hits low-income people harder, it hits working people harder," he said. "It's just fundamentally wrong to raise our revenue on the backs of low-income people."

S. Brandon Coan, an attorney and former Fischer adviser, said he supports the tax, noting exemptions under the proposed tax are similar to those of sales tax.

"We can't have things for free," he said. "We need to generate more revenue."

(Disclosure: Coan is a member of the Louisville Public Media board of directors.)

Josh White, an engineer, said he's against any flat tax, pointing to the disproportionate impact such taxes have on low-income residents.

"I have no opposition for using taxes which possible disproportionately affect the wealthy," he said. "That almost never happens."

Lynnie Meyer, an executive at Norton Healthcare, said a local option sales tax would be "another tool in the toolbox" for funding desired projects like libraries and the expansion of Waterfront Park in downtown Louisville.

Terra Long, a retired police officer and current aide to Councilman Tom Owen, said the local option sales tax has little hope to gain approval from state legislators, who have passed it over during the last two legislative sessions.

"I do think it would be helpful, I just don't see it coming our way," she said.

Support For Improving Public Transit

The candidates were unanimous in their support for improving the city's public transit system. Just how to do it, however, did not gain such consensus.

Charles Wooden, an employee at General Electric, said the city needs more frequent, direct routes to get people to their destinations more quickly. He did not elaborate on specifics about making such improvements.

Coan proposed consolidating the city's bus service, TARC, and its parking service, PARC. He said such a move would allow TARC to boost efficiency and enable PARC to address neighborhood parking issues rather than "just writing parking tickets in our neighborhoods."

"We can save a lot of money and we can also take some of that parking revenue, of which there is plenty, and flow it through the top line of TARC's budget to increase the frequency of routes and the quality of bus shelters," he said.

White dismissed Coan's proposal, saying the loss of competition between the two entities would be a "bad thing."

Reily said the key to boosting the city's public transit service is to grow its job base. TARC is funded, in part, through occupational taxes, and Reily said with more jobs there'd be more money funneling into the bus system.

Meyer said to improve public transit, the city must increase residential density -- one of the goals of Move Louisville, the Fischer administration's recently released long-range transportation plan.

"You can't just talk about investing in transportation, you also have to have complete street design and access to that transportation," she said.

Kolb criticized Move Louisville, calling the plan "extremely problematic" for its lack of consideration for light rail and its promotion of policies that fail to combat sprawl.

"We have to promote light rail, not just for the moral and environmental consequences, so that we keep attracting good businesses," he said.

Long praised the Move Louisville plan for its attention on "neighborhoods that need it the most."

The Future Of Short-Term Rentals

The candidates also gave opinions on how the city should regulate short-term rentals, commonly found through online services such as Airbnb. The topic is something city legislators have wrestled with for months.

Coan said the capacity limits in the city's current short-term rental proposal need to be reexamined.

"I don't understand why you can have a person for every bed, plus four," he said. "I would rather see a bed for every person to reduce the number of people to make it more reasonable."

Kolb said he's happy with how the council is looking to regulate short-term rentals.

"I think it was wise to prevent people from buying properties solely for the purpose of renting it out," he said.

White compared short-term rentals to hotels and said they don't belong in residential areas.

"We don't have hotels zoning inside our residential neighborhoods for very good reasons," he said.

Meyer floated the idea of limiting the number of rentals by month in a single unit.

Reily said the key to regulating short-term rentals is to ensure hosts and owners are accountable.

Other topics that gained unanimous support from the candidates included providing parental leave for city employees, the need to address the city's incarceration and addiction issues, and the importance of combating its urban heat island.

Candidates also support humane treatment of wild animals in the city's parks, a conversation spurred by the recent news of a coyote in Cherokee Park.

Ken Stammerman has lived in District 8 for about 22 years. He said making a choice from the seven candidates will be tough.

"You’ve got such a rich choice here," he said. "It’s an embarrassment of riches, and that’s the problem.”

Heather Dearing is a District 8 resident and said each candidate seems committed to the district, but she's looking for a candidate with a "vision for the entire city."

"We don’t have a lot of criminal issues that we have to deal with, so I would have liked to hear what the bigger vision for the entire city of Louisville is, not just what they want to do for District 8.”

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.

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