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Louisville Doesn't Spend Tax Dollars The Way Congress Does. Here's Why

Steve Haag thinks back to when he worked for the Jefferson County Judge-Executive and laughs at how things were years ago.

He was working for then County Judge-Executive Rebecca Jackson, and he recalls the process for answering the phones as ... inefficient.

"We had to take turns," he said. "She wasn't allowed to hire a front desk person."

This was pre-merger -- the days before the old county government merged with the City of Louisville government. And back then, Jackson, a Republican, had little say over hiring and firing and even small purchases.

The system she found herself in back then served as an influence, of sorts, for today's "strong mayor" system in the merged city-county government she was then helping build.

"I believed the executive needed to have not only the responsibility of running the community, but the authority to do it," Jackson said this week in an interview with WFPL News.

Fast forward to now. That’s what Louisville Metro government has: a strong mayor. And it's not just the current mayor. It's the office.

The National League of Cities loosely defines a "strong mayor" as one that acts as the city’s chief executive officer, one that appoints and removes department heads and one that has veto power.

And this brings us to the city's budget.

When the Metro Council casts their final votes on the city's spending plan tonight, it'll be Mayor Greg Fischer who gives the final nod.

The system is starkly different than the federal budgeting process, where Congress calls the shots. But it's designed to be different -- it's necessary, Jackson said, for checks and balances.

The city's 26 council members spend two months examining Fischer's budget proposal, which this year includes some $839 million in spending. They pepper department heads about spending and many do so with an eye towards their own district.

And Jackson – who is retired now – says that’s their job. The mayor’s job, though, she says, is to think about the budget from a city level – and not be driven by the needs of one district. That’s why it’s important the mayor gets a final nod.

And it's why, despite being a Republican in a city run by Democrats, she still supports the strong mayor system.

"Everybody has their job," she said.

The mayor can veto the budget, but Steve Haag said it's a rarity. When it does happen, it's more so used as a mechanism to force a re-examination of detail -- not so much a total rejection.

He said since the merger, he remembers just a handful of vetoes, none of them purely budget related, he said. And of course, the council can override a mayoral veto with 18 votes.

These days, Haag is the director of the council's minority Republican caucus. In his office on the second floor of City Hall, tucked on a shelf above his desk, sits a set of thick, dusty binders that hold the documents detailing the ordinance that brought the city and county together.

He points them out and laughs.

"Fun stuff," he said.

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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