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Fischer calls for spending bulk of federal COVID relief on police, affordable housing

Mayor Greg Fischer (right) speaking with Metro Council President David James (center) and Budget Chair Bill Hollander (left) during Tuesday's press conference.
Mayor Greg Fischer (right) speaking with Metro Council President David James (center) and Budget Chair Bill Hollander (left) during Tuesday's press conference.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer released a plan Tuesday for how he wants to spend roughly $263 million in federal COVID relief funds. If approved, the proposal accounts for much of the $388 million the city has been allotted from Congress’ American Rescue Plan Act.

Fischer’s proposal includes $78 million in one-time funding for public safety. The largest chunk of that money, $41 million, would go to the Louisville Metro Police Department for the creation of an Accountability and Improvement Bureau, as well as technology and facility upgrades. 

He also wants to spend an additional $21 million on bonuses for city employees, including police officers and Metro Corrections workers. The bonuses range from $500 to $5,000, with essential public safety employees eligible for the most money. Bonuses will be contingent, in part, on whether an employee chooses to get vaccinated. Most Metro employees are vaccinated, though rates are lower among police, firefighters and jail workers, according to the Courier Journal.

“The proposed ARP funds represent an unprecedented opportunity for us to make not only great improvements, but also great inroads into addressing both prevention of violence and the causes of it, too,” Fischer said at a press conference.

The proposed public safety spending also includes nearly $16 million for violence deterrence and prevention programs, such as Louisville’s new Group Violence Intervention initiative.

District 9 Metro Council Member Bill Hollander, a Democrat who chairs the Budget Committee, said the plan will allow the city to get in front of the police reforms they expect the U.S. Department of Justice will mandate. The DOJ has been investigating Louisville since April to determine if there is a pattern or practice of biased policing. 

Hollander said the mandated reforms that come as a result of the investigation could cost the city $8 to $10 million per year.

“One of the things we are trying to do to save money in the general fund is to use this ARP money for those investments that we are going to need,” Hollander said. “Other communities, frankly, that have had DOJ reviews haven’t had this pot of money available to make the needed reforms. We do.”

Housing advocates say more needs to be done

Fischer said his ARP spending plan reflects his belief that public safety is Louisville’s top priority. But the majority of residents who responded to a Metro Council survey earlier this year chose “affordable/government supported housing” as the most important use for federal COVID relief.

The proposal released Tuesday includes $100 million for the category of homelessness and affordable housing, although just $80 million is planned to go toward building new affordable housing units. The plan puts $1.5 million aside for a proposed outdoor space for people experiencing homelessness. Another $8 million is allocated for home repairs and down payment assistance for roughly 300 residents.

The city is also counting a separate $11 million housing grant as part of the $100 million in affordable housing spending. It’s unclear how it will use that money. The city will be required to conduct community engagement and get approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development before it can spend the grant.

Some housing advocates said the $80 million proposed for new affordable housing is a good start, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect residents’ priorities or Louisville’s growing need. 

Catherine McGeeney, communications director for the Coalition for the Homeless, said an $80 million investment accounts for just 20% of the COVID relief Louisville is expected to receive.

“We absolutely need every penny of this funding, but we need more,” she said. “We believe that, given that the community prioritized this, this is the perfect way to invest one-time dollars. You create these units and they’re around for decades to lift people out of homelessness and poverty.”

Celine Mutuyemariya, a housing policy advisor to the Louisville Urban League, echoed the need for more ARP funding to be allocated toward creating affordable housing.

“We are thankful for all of the work that has gone into creating this budget, but we do hope there’s an opportunity for our representatives to hear from the community and really listen to advocates, and to have the proposed budget reflect what those community priorities were,” Mutuyemariya said.

Advocates say they are also pushing the city to ensure that the new affordable housing units built with this funding are accessible to the city’s poorest residents. A 2019 housing needs survey commissioned by Louisville Metro found that the city is lacking 31,000 housing units that are affordable for families making 30% of the area median income, or roughly $23,000 a year for a family of four.

“We need all of the affordable housing dollars to be dedicated to people at 30% of the [area median income] or below,” McGeeney said. “You know, wouldn’t it be amazing if Louisville led the way when it came to rental housing for poor people out of the ARP dollars?”

Putting money away for future needs

Fischer’s plan would also set aside nearly $30 million for future public health needs related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Local governments must spend all of the federal relief by the end of 2026.

Under the proposal, $20 million would be used to cover the administrative costs for doling out the money to various city departments and community nonprofits. Another $20 million is restricted for “unforeseen events over the life of the grant.

Louisville Metro Council will have to approve the spending plan, and members may make amendments. The Budget Committee is expected to discuss the proposal at its meeting on Thursday, Nov. 4.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.