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Metro Council pumps the brakes on parts of Fischer’s COVID-19 relief plan

Louisville Metro Council chambers.
Louisville Metro Council chambers.

Louisville Metro Council’s Budget Committee approved roughly $80 million in cuts to the mayor’s plan for spending the bulk of the city’s federal COVID-19 relief.

Mayor Greg Fischer released a proposal last month to spend $263 million in American Rescue Plan funding on various public safety, public health and affordable housing initiatives. That would have left just $80 million in federal relief to be allocated, which worried some Metro Council members because they’re still debating funding proposals for safe and healthy neighborhoods and workforce development.

District 8 Council Member Cassie Chambers Armstrong, a Democrat who is part of the neighborhoods work group, told WFPL News last week that Fischer’s plan would have effectively killed some of the more costly proposals council members are considering 

“There are still two groups working on really important issues ranging from youth suicide prevention, to remediating brownfields, to building equitable built environments in our underserved communities,” she said. “The fact that those groups, who are tackling big, systemic issues, haven’t even made their proposals yet, I think does a disservice to the community.”

Chambers Armstrong argued for putting some pieces of Fischer’s proposal on hold until there’s a better understanding of what other programs are on the table. 

On Monday night, Chambers Armstrong and others got their wish. The Budget Committee voted unanimously to move forward with $21 million in proposed spending on pandemic bonuses for city workers. Fischer’s proposed $89 million allocation for affordable housing and homeless services will also advance. The committee voted to reduce some of the funding for police reform and public health initiatives. The full Metro Council is expected to take a final vote on the spending plan on Thursday.

If the amended plan is approved, $160 million — double Fischer’s proposed remainder — will be available for future use. Louisville has until the end of 2026 to spend the money.

Budget Committee Chair Bill Hollander, a Democrat from District 9, noted that Monday’s decision doesn’t mean some of the initiatives and programs included in the original proposal won’t get funded. 

“I want to say very clearly that, at least as I’m concerned, what is not in this amendment that was proposed in the original ordinance is not being rejected, it’s being deferred,” Hollander said at Monday’s meeting.

In total, Louisville expects to receive $388 million from the American Rescue Plan. The city already allocated about $40 million of that earlier this year.

Cuts to police reform funding

One of the largest chunks in Fischer’s spending plan was a $35 million allocation to the Louisville Metro Police Department. 

That was earmarked for implementing reforms recommended in a report produced by the Chicago-based firm Hillard Heintz after the police killing of Breonna Taylor. It could also be used to cover department-wide changes that officials expect the U.S. Department of Justice will mandate after it completes its investigation of alleged abuses by LMPD.

The police department has plans to create and staff an “Improvement and Accountability Bureau” that would drive policy changes and other reforms. The city’s top public safety officials told Metro Council last month that implementing the DOJ mandates they expect will cost up to $10 million each year.

Hollander and other council members said it would be better to use American Rescue Plan dollars to cover the reforms now, rather than using money collected through local taxes in the future.

“Other communities, frankly, that have had DOJ reviews haven’t had this pot of money available to make the needed reforms. We do,” Hollander said at a press conference last month.

The Budget Committee agreed to cut spending on police reforms in half, down to $17.5 million. 

While $15.8 million set aside for violence deterrence and prevention programs remains untouched, $2.9 million for expanding the city’s 911 call deflection program to another LMPD division was cut. A deflection program pilot in LMPD’s 4th Division was announced earlier this year as a way for Louisville to provide a non-police response to some emergency calls. It’s slated to start operation next month.

Lower vaccine incentive withholding and other cuts

Louisville will spend $21 million in federal funding on providing one-time bonuses to government employees for their work during the COVID-19 pandemic. The bonuses range from $500 to $5,000, with essential first responders eligible for the most money.

Fischer initially proposed doling out $2,500 to essential public safety workers, with the other half of their bonus contingent on an employee providing proof of vaccination. On Monday, the committee instead opted to give first responders and jail workers more up front, withholding only $1,000 for first responders as a vaccination incentive. Other employees considered essential will receive $1,500, of which $500 will be withheld. All other employees are eligible for a $500 bonus only if they are vaccinated.

In addition to cuts to police reform spending, the Budget Committee also agreed to put a hold on some of the money set aside for fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

The amended plan keeps in place $12.5 million in funding for Louisville’s public health department for vaccinations, contact tracing and other pandemic-related programs in 2022. But council members cut an additional $15 million that Fischer wanted to earmark for public health needs in 2023.

They also cut the majority of the funding Fischer planned to set aside for hiring people to manage the American Rescue Plan funds as well as for contingency reserves, from $40 million down to just $10 million.

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