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Curious Louisville Voter Guide: Greg Fischer Answers Your Questions

Mayor Fischer by J. Tyler Franklin, Louisville Public Media-140320
Photo by J. Tyler Franklin
Greg Fischer

Earlier this month, Curious Louisville, in collaboration with Al Día en América, asked listeners: “If you were moderating a debate with all the candidates for the mayoral primary, what would you ask them?”

From your responses, we chose a list of 15 questions that covered a variety of topics — ranging from the future of mass transit in Louisville, to gun violence, to solutions for racial and economic segregation — and posed them to the candidates.

Here are the responses from current mayor Greg Fischer, a Democrat:

A listener wants to know: “What is your management style and philosophy when it comes to working with various agencies, departments and the public?”

The key for me is that we start with great values. Our city values have all been documented very clearly, and the big values for the city, of course, are compassion, lifelong learning and health. Then we have a set of internal values, as well.

Following that, there’s a creation of a strategic plan for the city, and then that rolls down into each department, so they have their own plans as well. And then they execute the plans, report progress on the plans through our LouieStat meetings, which is a combination of reporting of progress, but then also how they are doing against their key metrics. Each one of our departments has a goal of being the very best in the country in terms of their specific function, so we measure our performance against the best in the country. Whatever that gap is — if we’re not the best — then we use problem-solving tools against that which the department will select themselves.

It’s a combination of data collection and analysis, project management, and to help all that coming along, we created the office of performance improvement, so that it could provide structure to the planning process and the total involvement process, but then provide the training so that people have the skills to know how to improve. It’s a very, very structure process that I used in my business life — we were nationally recognized as finalists for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in 1997 — so what we’ve done is bring the best of the private sector problem-solving and improvement practices and innovation practices to city government.

Brennan wants to know: “What should be the future of mass transit in Louisville?”

That’s a great question. So many people are wanting the ability to live in a city where they don’t have to have a car, certainly don’t have to have two cars. The critical issue for any issue when it comes to mass transit is how dense is the city. How easy is it to get people around from one part to another, and what distance do you have to travel?

One of our challenges as a city is that we are a large city; 400 square-miles as a city when we consolidated our city and county governments. That means it’s very expensive to cover large expanses of land. The backdrop on that then, too, is that federal government investment in local public transportation is decreasing significantly. Our TARC budget is about $87 million, and about $50 million of that comes from the occupational tax. Only about 15 percent comes from the fare box.

It’s not widely used by our citizens; it’s about two percent of our citizens widely use public transportation. But disproportionately, lower income residents use public transportation so in many cases it’s their lifeline to the grocery store, a lifeline to a job, that job might be across town and require two or three bus transfers to get there, so that’s an area we’re working on with our whole Move Louisville plan. TARC is working on that as well.

When you take a look at a city our size, our population, bus is the most common public transportation method. We’re putting in our first bus rapid transit system in the city. That’s going to be going down 18th Street and Dixie Highway; that’ll be coming into place next year, so that will speed up commutes, work with some intelligent transportation systems so it’s moving through stoplights much for rapidly, so I’m anxious to see how that’s going to work out.

A listener wants to know: “What will you do to keep Louisville from being unduly controlled/regulated by Frankfort rather than the local elected officials?”

That’s an area I fight on all the time. The 2017 legislative session in Frankfort was punctuated by some so-called ‘war on Louisville’ bills, and I was proud of our city, our business community, how they pushed back on many of those. We produce in Louisville $2.8 billion every year in taxes. Kentucky is a very centrally-controlled tax state, so that money goes to Frankfort, then we $1.4 billion of that back.

So, we’re helping support the rest of the state. That’s the role of the biggest city. We’re the economic engine of the state. And just like we, the state of Kentucky, gets more money from the federal government then we send to them — and I understand that, but what’s important, the state government should give us all the room in the world for local control, so we can grow our economy.

Not just to help folks that live here, but also help the rest of the state. When there’s issues out there, we fight against them. One right now is the state takeover of our local school system that I’ve been very vocal about. I think the audit with JCPS is a great improvement tool, but I think if you want to motivate and empower the most amount of people, what you say to the community, if you’re the state, is:

‘Here’s what the audit has found, it’s a great roadmap for improvement. Here’s the priority areas we need to work in. Here’s some resources we’re giving to you all. Now, community get to work on this. We’re going to come back and check in six months and if adequate progress isn’t being made, then we might tighten the control down a little bit.’

To me, that’s the modern management way of doing that, and that’s also the way that we’re going to get the most amount of buy-in from the community as well, and I’m hearing that daily from our citizens. Where there issues we need to fight, we’re going to fight and we’re also going to advocate for areas where we feel like we should have more local control.

A listener wants to know: “What are the essential elements for a successful JCPS?”

The good news is everybody agrees that the goal of JCPS should be to be the best large public school district in the country, where every child has the resources to succeed by all means.

Now, of course, the challenge that we have is we have 101,000 students at JCPS. Sixty-seven percent of those kids are on free and reduced lunch, so many of them come to school with burdens that many families don’t have. They might come to school hungry, you might come to school after experiencing trauma over the weekend, so for us to expect the school system to fix all of these woes is extremely naive.

Students spend 85 percent of their time outside of the school and just 15 percent in the school, so we should lean aggressively into the audit and improve all those — I’m not discounting that. We have done 30 audits ourselves with Metro government, so I am big believer in audits. But you want to get the citizens of Louisville excited about the opportunities and get involved with that, so we can address a couple issues.

One is overall performance — the entire school system, but specifically lean into the achievement gaps that you most typically see in our communities of color. This is a national problem and it’s also a local problem, so how do we improve the performance of the schools, but most importantly to me, in terms of really moving the needle here, is addressing what we call 'the needs of the whole child.'

The whole child includes the part while they are in school, but the bigger picture is social and emotional learning, physical and mental health — tutoring, out of school time, all those types of advantages that some families have to provide their kid which allows them to perform better in school. We need to, as a society, figure out how to wrap those types of services around our kids, so that we can close these gaps we see at JCPS.

Gary Mudd says: “The streets of downtown Louisville are so torn up, I avoid driving there. What is your plan for making downtown an inviting place to visit?”

I am equally frustrated with the streets of downtown Louisville and they are primarily in the shape they are in because of all the construction that is going on. We are waiting until the convention center gets completed here, it’s going to be reopening on Aug. 1, as one of our kind of milestones to start the repavement of many of the downtown streets.

By the time the fall paving season ends, you’re going to see a very different downtown. I know many people, including myself, are very much looking forward to seeing that. One of the other challenges that we have, but it’s being organized properly, is re-laying fiber downtown and many of the other different things that will be improving the infrastructure of our city, but it’s painful while it’s going on.

There’s a plan and all of this can be seen online, too. You can see the priority of the streets online. That’s all in the context of some of the largest paving budgets we’ve had in our history, so we’ve had this budget and the prior two budgets with about $22 million dedicated to paving and sidewalks, so we are making good progress around the city. But downtown is far too bumpy; we’ll solve it.

A listener asks: “What will you do to put the Citizens and residents that live here year round first and foremost before tourist, conventioneers, etc. We pay the bills through taxes, but we have to deal with the bad roads.”

Well, a healthy tourist economy is good in terms of jobs. We have tens of thousands of people that are employed in our tourist economy, so there are local folks that have jobs. We also receive millions of dollars, tens of millions of dollars, in revenue off of the bed tax from people in the city that then helps pay for the improvement of our city.

‘Bourbonism’ has turned out to be a real thing for us in terms of bourbon and local food tourism. We’re seeing a real boom in that. We have 20 hotels that are under construction or announced in the city right now, so to me, those are indications you are a healthy city. One of the reasons why we outperform — it’s our local food scene, our local restaurant scene, because of our great local chefs and we have a lot of tourists coming through as well.

Tourist provide a boost to our economy. They pay taxes that then we can use for those of us who are here year-round, so I think tourism is definitely part of our city’s strategy and it’s part of a city that’s full of vitality. But if there are specific problems associated with that, I would certainly like to know what they are and address them.

Dakota Neff asks: “Louisville is one of the country's most segregated urban areas, racially and economically. How would you bring our communities together and increase economic development, specifically in West Louisville?”

The city’s east of the Mississippi River are affected with segregated housing patterns, much like we see here in Louisville. Those are all a part of a legacy of horrible urban planning that was started in the 30s and 40s, where you saw specific areas of the cities of our country, including Louisville that had abominable things done to them.

Oftentimes the government was doing some of this — redlining was one of these practices…

Now that’s all been removed and we are remedying those historical wrongs. The other issues that came with segregated housing patterns was the intentional placement of interstate highways, or the creation of busy roads that separated African American communities from the business community, downtown. The ‘Ninth Street Divide’ was specifically designed that way…

Now what we’re doing about it. Russell neighborhood, west of Ninth Street in particular, is receiving close to a billion dollars in new investment that’s been announced or underway. In the Russell neighborhood in particular, we are focusing on an increase in home ownership among residents. In other words, primarily African American communities. We are focusing on improving the numbers of black-owned businesses as well, so we are generating and keeping wealth in the community and also being able to transfer wealth through generations.

So you’ll be seeing a lot of change in the Russell community. The thing we are making sure does not take place is gentrification, so that people understand that ‘I’ve lived here, this is my neighborhood’ — you’ll be able to grow and prosper here as well. The second principle is deep community engagement. You saw that with our Vision Russell team, which led to all the plans around Beecher Terrace redo, into a mixed-use, mixed-income community. Over 100 community meetings have led to what that vision is, so it’s really important that you get the voice of the citizens in that.

Susan Means wants to know: “What are your plans to stop the gun violence in our city?”

Fortunately we are seeing a reduction in gun violence. We had a very violent time in our city from June ‘16 to June ‘17, relative to a spike in shootings and homicides. This area of the country — all of the cities — saw that. We saw that with the increased use of opioids and the dealing of opioids in our cities.

Fortunately the last nine months, our homicides are down about 22 percent, shootings are down about 22 percent as well. So the way we approach this with what we call ‘people and places.’

The people strategy is that we make sure we identify the most violent people in our city and remove them from the streets. In any city you go into, you’ve got about one percent of the population that causes about 70 percent of the mayhem. Within that one percent, there are people who are shooters and shot callers, so we’ve created a federal task force — LMPD, along with FBI, ATF, US Marshals, US attorneys — to identify those folks. When they commit crimes, you remove them from the streets under federal charges, which makes it difficult to get back on the street...

For young people, aged 16 to 24, who have had a brush with the law, but want a peaceful and productive path forward, we have multiple effective programs. The REimage program has had 400 people go through it. These are kids, youth, that have had a brush with the criminal justice system, we assign a mentor to them, if they don’t have their high school degree, we help them get their GED, a job. Then we mentor them through that process.

Of the 400 people who have gone through that, we’ve only had a five percent recidivism rate.  

Griffin Paulin says: “To your understanding, what is the root cause of homelessness, and as a follow up, how do you intend to curtail it?”

Homelessness is a real difficult challenge for the entire country, and we have our own challenges here locally. Fortunately, we have a great Coalition for the Homeless, which is a great group of organizations that work together to reduce homelessness in the community. You have a couple different categories of homeless.

You have some people who are recently homeless because they have fallen upon hard times economically and they don’t have a safety net to fall back on. In the past, that might have been a bigger safety net or a family safety net — so you have people like that who are homeless.

On the other side, you have the chronically, long-term homeless people that, when our local caseworkers work with them, sometimes they just don’t want to come off the street. I mean, that is where they want to live. So those are our most difficult. Oftentimes, that coincides with significant mental illness problems that are not managed properly. So you have very difficult casework.

We flood homeless camps with resources and social workers so that we can try to get people in stable housing situations.  The other thing is that we have put in an unprecedented amount into affordable housing in the community because as housing costs have gone up, some people are forced out to the streets. There’s a variety of things you can do about that. We also have a homelessness encampment task force underway right now, so that we can figure out what is the best way to work with homeless camps.

It’s a multifaceted type of thing, but we’ve shown we can be successful. President Obama and his wife, Michelle, issued a challenge to eliminate veterans’ homelessness. We were the second city in the country to eliminate veterans’ homelessness. Last year we had a 100-day challenge to house 100 youth; we also met that.

Rebecca Pattillo asks:What is your stance on racist or Confederate statues in public spaces throughout Louisville?”

Any symbols, art, that celebrates any type of discrimination doesn’t have a place in the city. Many of these have historical context that are very different from the context of today. In the case of our most prominent of that, which was the obelisk on the University of Louisville’s campus, we moved very quickly, much more so than most cities around the country, to move this statue into what was a more appropriate location.

I was accused of being the Taliban by destroying statues; that’s not what we did. When it was put in place, it was on the outskirts of a city. It was a different time. So we said, let’s move this off, because it’s very insulting to many people when you’re celebrating a period in our history, of our country, where you bought, sold, bred human beings. That’s not something that has a place of honor...

What we have in place right now is a subset of our Commission on Public Art that is hearing from folks in the city on what their views are on public art, so they will be coming back with some policy recommendations so that we have set guidelines to look at all our public art in our city and see if there’s any type of offensive, racist art out there. And if there is that art, decisions will be made to remove, relocate.

A listener wants to know: “What local news sources do you consume on a regular basis?”

I consume all kinds of news all the time. So, WFPL is a good source of news, of course. The Courier-Journal I read on a daily basis, Insider Louisville, I also frequently take a look at that. I get a summary of news clippings everyday. Business First is a source I look at. If there’s something being written about our city, I’ve read it or will be reading it.

Of course there’s a broad national context to my job. I’m very involved with the United States Conference of Mayors, so when you think about national policies taking place and how they affect our city, I have to be aware of that. So the Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN, Fox News, as well, to get that different point of view.

From a statewide standpoint, I also read the Lexington Herald-Leader, as they do a better job of local sources of covering Frankfort.

Daniel Sherrill asks: “What do you plan on doing about neglected property and graffiti vandals? Those are the two things that seem to drag down our city aesthetically.”

Graffiti, I agree, is a challenge and it’s one where you knock it down and it comes back up. We actually provide dedicated resources with a graffiti abatement truck that is methodically going throughout the city. We are also talking with folks that do murals and such. We think coming out of this budget, $200,000 that will be dedicated to putting murals up throughout the city in the hopes folks will respect that type of art and not put graffiti over them.

We’ve also brought a dedicated resource on a couple months ago to ensure our city is clean and green, so I’m very focused on cleanliness as well. It’s an area you just have to stay on top of, and I would just appeal to people who are doing the graffiti, get involved in our mural program, respect other people’s property…

On the neglected property side, vacant and abandoned properties — we’ve spent a huge amount of resources on that. When we started coming out of the great recession, there were about 9,000 vacant and abandoned properties in the city, now it’s down to 6,000 to 7,000. The challenges with it is establishing who owns these properties. Kentucky is a very intensive state as it relates to owners’ rights. We’ve had five different laws changed in Frankfort so we can secure property that’s been abandoned so we can put it to more beneficial use.

Of the 7,000 vacant and abandoned properties, the city controls about 10 percent of those... so for those we control, we are moving those off from being vacant and abandoned, and if somebody has a specific property they’re interested in, you can go to our website and see what the title is on that and we’ll try to help you secure it so it can be put to good use, especially if it has to do with home ownership.

Thorne and Sally Vale want to know: “It has become very obvious that the Louisville tree ordinance is ineffective. Our tree canopy must be protected. It is past time to establish an ordinance to stop developers and builders from taking down any tree that is in their way. What are you going to do about protecting Louisville's tree canopy?”

The areas that we control, public lands, council passed a tree ordinance last year and I was happy to support that with them, so city government can at least follow this type of practice. When it comes to developers, we encourage them to do the replacement.

Some of challenges in that area are getting consensus from the Metro Council of exactly what should be taking place on private lands; what I can tell you is that people put higher value on properties that have more trees. Trees provide a tremendously beneficial use, obviously, in terms of cooling the city, stormwater run-off, we see it as a big part of the infrastructure of our city.

This year, as part of the budget, I’ve put $600,000 for tree programs. I should say that in some of my prior years, the council has reduced what we’ve requested for our trees, so people should contact their Metro Council folks and communicate to them the importance of a healthy tree canopy.

A listener wants to know:What role do you believe local law enforcement should play in enforcing immigration laws? And do you support the ordinance in place that prevents police officers from assisting ICE in most situations?”

I’ve been very active in this area. Local law enforcement has specific duties; they do not include enforcement of federal immigration law. Those are two very different issues. Local law enforcement, of course, is stretched covering the challenges we have, much less taking on the responsibilities of enforcing federal law. There are very specific rules of engagement between ICE and LMPD.

LMPD will only assist ICE if there’s a threat of imminent danger, if they are serving a warrant on someone for arrest. And if ICE calls and makes that request, the commanding officer has to be involved in that assessment on whether or not it’s a real need, and then that commanding officer has to be on-site, as well, to make sure it’s legit and went down the proper way.

I think what we’ve demonstrated as a city is you can be a welcoming city like we are. A big part of our population growth is happening with our foreign-born community — internationals make cities interesting. Cities of the future will have deep and experienced international populations who, all the numbers show, are more entrepreneurial and they create businesses at a faster rate.

We want to be a global city; our kids need to grow up in a city that’s global, so they can be as comfortable operating in Louisville as they would be in London or Hong Kong, so it’s important to the future of our city. You can obey all the laws and be a welcoming city, as well.

A listener wants to know: “What is your vision for Louisville during and after your term in office if you are elected Mayor?”

Our city is going through a real renaissance right now. We have $13 billion in construction taking place in our city, all over the city. About a billion of that is happening west of Ninth Street. 75,000 new jobs have been created over the last four years and 2,500 new businesses.

So, what we’ve seen is a lot of people working real hard that have contributed to this renaissance. Our city has never seen this much activity before. We’re also seeing people move out of poverty situations. This past year, 11,000 people have worked themselves out of poverty into middle-income jobs, so it’s important that we have good jobs.

What we’re demonstrating is that you can build an inclusive economy based on principles of compassion, and still have high rates of innovation and high rates of growth. I think that’s what future successful cities are going to look like. So, I am running for a third term to make sure that we keep this momentum going at all parts of our city, so everybody feels like they are connected to a bright and hopeful future, and then we have the actual physical growth of our city that’s actually taking place as well, as more and more people want to invest in our city.

We want to manage that in an appropriate way that doesn’t lead to gridlock, to gentrification — but leads to a situation where everybody has an opportunity to move ahead. Louisville is seen as one of these next great breakout medium-size cities. You see that in national publications. We’ve got a wonderful quality of life here, great people who live here, a beautiful built environment  between our architecture and our parks here and our place along the Ohio River.

We have a lot of great assets to grow our city for everybody into the future.

You can read the other candidates' responses here.

89.3 WFPL is partnering with Al Día en América to provide Spanish-language versions of stories. To read this story in Spanish, click here.