How a new commission will evaluate the successes, failures of Louisville’s merged government
After three failed attempts at consolidation, the city of Louisville and Jefferson County officially merged into one government in 2003.
At the time, Jerry Abramson, the first mayor of the consolidated Louisville Metro, hoped it would end fighting between the city and county.
"Now, we have one agenda, one clear vision, rather than two people who feel like they are both in charge of the same community,” Abramson said.
But 20 years later, more than 80 independent cities are dotted across the county, ranging from just a few hundred residents to more than 25,000. And some residents feel that even after merger there’s still a divide between neighborhoods inside the Watterson Expressway and communities south of it. Those who talk about a “Watterson divide” say there remains an unequal distribution of city resources and political power.
The Kentucky General Assembly last year approved House Bill 314, which, among other things, created the Louisville Metro Comprehensive Review Commission. The body was tasked with examining where the promises of merger have been fulfilled, and where it’s fallen short.
The commission will hold its second meeting on Friday at City Hall, 601 W. Jefferson St., and is expected to meet once per month moving forward.
What will the commission do?
The Louisville Metro Comprehensive Review Commission has 15 members, each representing a distinct constituency in Jefferson County. It includes three representatives each from Metro Council, the state Senate, the House of Representatives and Greater Louisville Inc., the local chamber of commerce. There are also members representing the mayor’s office and the Jefferson County League of Cities.
At its first meeting last month, Republican state Rep. Jason Nemes of Louisville tried to set a collaborative tone as the group discussed its priorities.
“After speaking with a lot of constituents and a lot of legislators, it would be a good idea to see what has lived up to the promise and what we can improve upon,” he said. “We all agree, and I say this in the legislature frequently, we have the best town to live in in the entire United States.”
Nemes was one of the sponsors of HB314 and was elected co-chair of the Commission by his fellow members. Earl Jones, senior counsel for General Electric and a member representing the chamber, is the other co-chair.
Areas for review the General Assembly outlined include:
- “The accomplishments and insufficiencies … of the consolidated local government model”
- The roles and duties of the mayor and Metro Council “as it relates to duties, oversight, budgeting, and administration”
- “…intergovernmental relations between the Louisville Metro Government and the suburban cities and special service districts” in Jefferson County
- The “tax powers and funding of Louisville Metro Government and the suburban cities…”
- “The distribution and provision of governmental services 2 between the Louisville Metro Government and the suburban cities and special 3 service districts”
The commission has so far discussed the need to compile data on how Louisville Metro services and resources are distributed across the county and how that aligns with population trends. The 2020 U.S. Census results showed the number of residents in west Louisville declining, while areas in the southeast appear to be booming.
The commission is expected to hold monthly meetings in different locations around Jefferson County and will be accepting comments from the public about their experience with consolidated government.
In an interview with WFPL News, Douglass Hills Mayor Bonnie Jung suggested that a 2011 study conducted by the Merger 2.0 Task Force could serve as a basis for the commission’s future work.
That report found that only 56% of Jefferson County residents were satisfied with Metro’s ability to serve the needs of its citizens. The task force recommended better education around the separate tax rates paid by county residents vs. residents in the urban core, a larger study of police response times, and a renewed effort to mitigate traffic congestion, including investments in public transportation.
Jung, who is president of the Jefferson County League of Cities and representing the organization on the commission, said some of those issues have been addressed, but others have not.
“Even back then, the feeling was that some of the unincorporated areas were feeling a lack of services,” Jung said. “So what I’d like to do is address those areas we’ve made no movement on.”
Is the commission just another part of the ‘war on Louisville’?
State Rep. Joni Jenkins, a Democrat serving parts of Louisville Metro and Shively, has urged her fellow commission members not to view this review of merger as “in any way, shape or form, a slight to Louisville.”
“I think it is a very productive exercise to come together after 20 years and see what we’re doing right, see what we’re doing wrong,” Jenkins said.
Some Louisville officials, however, view the ongoing tensions between Kentucky’s largest city, controlled by Democrats, and the Republican-dominated legislature as a “war on Louisville.” That includes many of the provisions in HB314.
Along with creating the Comprehensive Review Commission, the legislation reduces the number of terms the city’s mayor can serve from three four-year terms to two. More importantly, HB314 lifts the ban on creating more home-rule cities within the current boundaries of Louisville Metro.
In a March op-ed in the Courier Journal, 16 Metro Council members, mostly Democrats, argued that an explosion of new independent cities could drain money from public libraries, police and the county jail. That’s because residents in the old City of Louisville and unincorporated areas currently pay higher taxes on things like insurance premiums.
“Our budget for those taxes this year is $69.8 Million,” the council members wrote. “New cities could take $50 million of those insurance premium taxes and other funds for themselves, reduce Metro’s revenue, and threaten our ability to provide important countywide services.”
Metro Council President David James, who represents Old Louisville, is a member of the new commission. He said he hopes the body’s work will include an education component for residents who may not understand that people living in the urban core pay significantly higher taxes for a larger number of city services.
Currently, residents who live outside of what's called the Urban Services District pay a property tax rate that is less than a third of what people living inside the district pay. In return, they get additional services like trash pickup, street lighting and fire protection.
“People will call my office and say, ‘We want free stuff like the people in the Urban Services District,’ and I have to tell them that it’s not free, they’re paying,” James said. “I don’t know that there’s even been a good education process for people to even recognize what those differences are.”
While James said he expects the commission will be able to move beyond the ‘war on Louisville’ rhetoric, he’s also asked for their review to include a look at what drove residents to support merger in the first place: the fights over annexation and the confusion created by having so many different jurisdictions.
James, who was a Louisville police officer, said he was well acquainted with the pre-merger problems.
“A fight would break out at the Toy Tiger [bar],” he said. “Half of that bar was in the city, half of it was in the county. I constantly remember fights about, ‘Oh, that’s in the county or that’s in the city.’ If you’re in the middle of a fight, you don’t care. You want police coming.”
Over the next year, the 15-member commission will put together a list of proposed changes to Louisville Metro Government. The state legislature would have to approve those changes.
A final report is due to the General Assembly’s Legislative Research Commission by September 2023.