Louisville Mayor, Metro Council clash over plans to use reform money for police HQ
Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg wants to use nearly all of the money allocated for Department of Justice-inspired reforms on building renovations and a new officer wellness center. Some Metro Council members are pushing back.
Greenberg’s plan is justified, his office argued, because the U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said facilities and improved officer health and wellness can lead to better policing. The Greenberg administration said it doesn’t need Metro Council’s approval to spend the reform money on renovations to a new police headquarters and wellness center.
But council President Markus Winkler, a District 17 Democrat, said he thinks Greenberg is making a bad decision by trying to bypass the council, which controls how city money is used. He said it’s “very clear” what Metro Council expected the American Rescue Plan Act funds to be used for when they approved the spending, and it wasn’t the proposed officer amenities.
“If that use is going to be materially different … that should be discussed,” Winkler said Thursday. “I would strongly encourage [the administration] to bring that item back and discuss it, and let us vote on it.”
The issue has set up a debate between legislators and the new mayoral administration about how the money can — and should — be used.
The funds are part of Louisville’s $388 million allotment from the American Rescue Plan Act — a windfall of federal money designed to help cities across the country recover from the economic fallout brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Metro Council set aside $17.5 million in 2021 for police reforms that would be certain to follow the Department of Justice’s in-depth investigation into the Louisville Metro Police Department. The report, released last week, outlined more than 30 recommended reforms to improve the police department, including a new use-of-force reporting and review system, training and data analysis of officer stops. City and police officials expect the effort will cost as much as $10 million annually.
Metro Council Member Jecorey Arthur, a District 4 Democrat, worries that Greenberg’s plan to use the money for new amenities takes precious resources from police reform.
At a meeting Thursday, Arthur told Greenberg’s general counsel, David Kaplan, the money was never intended to be used for building renovations or an officer wellness center. He warned Greenberg could be violating the law by trying to spend the money on something the council didn’t approve.
“It is very clear what we intended that money to be for,” Arthur said at the meeting.
Kaplan said Greenberg wants to “create an entire package of things” that will contribute to reforming the police department, and the new facilities are part of that plan.
A KyCIR reporter asked Kaplan explicitly if the administration would seek council’s approval for the plan. He responded that the administration would come back to the council for a conversation about “what we think is needed.”
Kaplan was meeting with council members to talk about the DOJ findings and related costs. He warned it would likely cost millions of dollars a year to pay for the changes needed within LMPD, though he did not provide a specific number.
Council members said they are concerned the costs will be a burden on a city that’s facing projected budget shortfalls through the next fiscal year. Greenberg will present a budget proposal to council members next month.
City finance officials told Metro Council last year they expect Louisville will see a multi-million dollar budget deficit in 2023 and 2024. Monica Harmon, the city’s director of finance, reiterated the deficit expectations at a budget committee meeting in December.
That means there could be little, if any, extra dollars available for policing reforms.
Inside the allocation
In November 2021, then-LMPD Chief Erika Shields and city officials said using federal funds for a police reform project would help brace the agency for needed changes in the wake of the DOJ report.
“The wrongdoing and the missteps and the damage to the community is very real,” she said at a budget committee meeting.
Shields never said the money could be used for a new police headquarters or officer wellness center. Instead, she said it could help stand up a new Accountability and Improvement Bureau that would review training protocols and policies and make needed recommendations for improvement. Doing so was critical to build a “model police force,” officials said.
In March 2022, police commanders appointed Deputy Chief Paul Humphrey to oversee the bureau.
LMPD did not make Humphrey available for an interview and a department spokesperson declined to answer questions about what the bureau has accomplished since it was created a year ago.
Officials have spent less than 4% of the $17.5 million the council set aside in late 2021 for the reform work, records provided in February show. Police spent more than $380,000 on salaries and benefits, more than $175,000 on legal and tactical training contracts and more than $54,000 on office supplies.
The records show $14 million of the reform funding allocation was in a “restricted fund” last September. There’s no indication in the documents of plans for using the funds. Kevin Trager, a spokesperson for Greenberg, said that is the money the mayor wants to use for the headquarters renovation.
Council members’ concerns
Arthur said he didn’t know Greenberg intended to dip into the reform money until the mayor held a press conference on March 2 in Metro Hall, where he laid out his plan.
Elevator renovations, HVAC upgrades and a roof replacement at the downtown AT&T building, slated to be the new police headquarters, would cost $14 million, Greenberg said. His administration planned to spend another $1.6 million to lease a new officer wellness center in Saint Joseph from the Louisville Metro Police Foundation.
Two weeks before that press conference, Greenberg went to council chambers to update members on projects funded with COVID-19 relief money. He said he wanted to make a technical change to the police reform spending measure by proposing an amendment that would extend the timeframe for spending the money to 2026. The current spending plan cuts it off later this year.
Greenberg never told council members he wanted to use the money for the new police amenities, and the amendment didn’t say so either.
A week later, Ken Hillebrand, the director of the Louisville Accelerator Team — which manages the city’s pot of federal COVID-19 relief funds — reiterated the ask and said the proposed amendment to the spending plan would only shift the spending time frame. He never mentioned a new headquarters or wellness center.
Arthur said Greenberg “told on himself” when he hosted the press conference the morning of March 2, before the council would convene to vote on his proposed change to the spending plan.
At that meeting, the council voted unanimously to remove Greenberg’s amendment to the reform spending plan from a broader measure that made smaller tweaks to other projects funded with American Rescue Plan Act money. Council members said they wanted clarity from Greenberg.
Arthur said if Greenberg wanted to change the focus of the project, he’d need to talk about it with the council first.
“If we change our minds, OK, but let's at least talk about it and give the public some time to understand what we're spending their money on,” Arthur said at the meeting.
Metro Council Member Anthony Piagentini, a District 19 Republican and chair of the council’s minority caucus, said at the same meeting that Greenberg could send a new ordinance to the council clearly detailing how he wanted to use the federal funds. Then the council could debate the issue in public — a key element of transparency that he said is necessary with public spending plans.
“If it’s all on the up and up, I think it’ll fly through,” he said.
Metro Council Member Paula McCraney, a District 7 Democrat and chair of the council’s majority caucus, said city officials must be clear about how they intend to spend public money. She said local lawmakers are eager to discuss the mayor’s proposed plan to ensure everybody is on the same page.
“We have to be mindful of where we said those dollars should go,” she said in an interview after the meeting. “There are so many needs in this community that we must be specific and intentional in what we do with this money.”
Questioning the investment
Nancy Cavalcante is an activist with the 490 Project, a local police accountability group. She was at Thursday’s council meeting and nodded along as Arthur detailed his concerns about Greenberg’s plan to use the reform money for police amenities.
She said it seems clear that the money was intended to fund changes to LMPD’s policies and practices, not renovate a new headquarters.
While she said she appreciates the council trying to hold Greenberg accountable, she’s not convinced investing in police reforms will change anything.
“I don't think we can reform this police department,” she said.
Instead, Calvacante wants to see more funds put into in community services and programs that help people — not police.