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Louisville leaders react to bill allowing new cities in Jefferson County

Louisville city leaders are speaking out against a Kentucky state bill that would allow new cities within unincorporated areas of Jefferson County.

Mayor Greg Fischer joined the chorus of 16 council members who signed an op-ed in the Courier Journal on Tuesday opposing the bill. They say it would erode Louisville’s tax base and impact services for residents.  

“It’s a bad bill. The merger has worked out well for Jefferson County [and] Louisville,” Fischer said of House Bill 314. “It was voted on by the citizens so any changes should be driven by the citizens.”

Voters approved the merger of Louisville and Jefferson County into a consolidated government in 2000. It allowed around 80 cities inside the county to stay intact and keep their own taxing authority and services while preventing the creation of any new cities within county lines. 

The bill would also limit Louisville’s mayor to serving only two terms, instead of three. Fischer, who is currently serving his third term, said that’s a decision that should be left to city residents.  

“Again the big issue here is to let the people of Louisville speak about what they want, not to have this forced on us by Frankfort,” he said. 

Passing the state House

State lawmakers have for the last few years pushed legislation to allow residents to incorporate their own cities inside Louisville Metro’s consolidated city/county district.

This latest push came from bill sponsor Rep. Jason Nemes and fellow Louisville Republicans lawmakers including Rep. Kevin Bratcher and Rep. Ken Fleming. The House passed the bill on a 70-23 vote Monday. It now moves to the Senate. 

While some Democrats, including Rep. Mary Lou Marzian of Louisville, have dubbed the bill a “War on Louisville” that usurps local control, Nemes said it actually does the opposite. He said his bill returns control to the residents of the unincorporated residents of Louisville. 

“What they’re saying is Frankfort should dictate to Louisville, should prohibit Louisville from having this conversation. What this bill does is it returns it to the good people of Valley Station and PRP,” he said on the House floor Monday, naming two unincorporated towns in the county. “And not us here in Frankfort.”

His bill would allow residents in Louisville’s unincorporated areas to form their own cities. Proposed cities would need at least 6,000 people and at least 75% of them would have to sign a petition for incorporation. 

With those standards met, the bill would require Metro Council to approve the new city. If less than 75% of residents approve, Metro Council would have the option to approve the city’s incorporation. 

Reducing tax base, funding new services

While the 2000 merger prevented residents from establishing new cities inside Louisville/Jefferson County, the Metro Council has allowed cities to annex new territories since 2015. Metro Council also allows for the creation of service districts that let residents pay additional taxes to fund things like waste hauling and public safety.

District 9 Councilmember Bill Hollander, a Democrat, said if new cities form under the House bill, a loss of special taxes, like those paid by insurance companies, could mean millions of lost dollars for the city.

“Our ability to provide policing services is not going to get better if we have less revenues. That’s just a fact. And insurance premium taxes that go to new cities but not Louisville Metro threaten our revenue,” Hollander said. 

Hollander was one of the 16 council members who signed the Courier Journal op-ed. It argued Louisville residents should talk about how additional services can be provided to the people who want them without cutting into Metro revenues. 

To that end, Rep. Joni Jenkins of Shively is sponsoring a resolution asking the Louisville mayor to form a task force examining the current state of consolidated government in Louisville.

Louisville business leaders with Greater Louisville Inc. are neutral on the bill and supportive of the dialogue.  Spokeswoman Olivia Sievert said the chamber is a long-time proponent of the city-county merger, but believes a discussion about the merger is warranted to avoid outdated policies.  

“However, we also encourage state lawmakers to work closely with local elected leaders and the community to ensure any changes benefit everyone who calls Louisville home,” Sievert said in an email. 

This post has been updated.

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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