After 20 years, residents can form new cities in Louisville Metro. Will they?
In some neighborhoods of Louisville Metro, dissatisfaction over local government policies and services is fueling debate over whether residents should form their own city.
Creating new independent cities in Jefferson County hasn’t been allowed under state law since the city-county merger in 2003, which spawned the combined Louisville Metro Government. But the Republican-dominated state legislature approved House Bill 314 last year, lifting the ban over the objection of most of Louisville’s local and state officials. Democratic leaders argued new cities would siphon off revenue from Louisville Metro and further the “Watterson Divide.”
The passage of HB 314 has so far sparked conversations among residents about what it would mean to go their own way and become their own city. Some are even sketching out what it would look like to form a new government from nothing.
With the provision going into effect in July, the question now is whether talk of incorporation will lead to action.
‘We can drive our own destiny’
At a public meeting earlier this year at Valley High School, a group of elected officials and business leaders asked people about the successes and failures of Louisville’s merger.
The response from South End residents was overwhelmingly negative.
One resident said she felt she was being “taxed to death.” Another complained about a proposed “low-income housing” development as well as existing apartment complexes and warehouses.
“Who have we become?” she asked members of the Comprehensive Review Commission. “Are we the new projects?”
Bob Heuglin, a Valley Station resident who previously ran for Metro Council as a Republican, also complained about the lack of police presence in southwest Jefferson County.
“There are times I can come four or five miles down Dixie [Highway] and I never see a cop,” Heuglin said.
Then, state Rep. Jared Bauman, a Republican newcomer elected last November, took the stage.
“I would like to offer the people of the South End a solution: incorporating our own cities like they have in other parts of the commonwealth,” he said to a round of applause.
Bauman told South End residents they could have a bigger influence on issues like development, policing and taxes in a smaller local government.
“We don’t have to look to the guys on this panel or look down to City Hall to take care of us,” Bauman said. “We can drive our own destiny, drive our own fate.”
Changes on the horizon
In 2000, the Kentucky General Assembly put the merger of Louisville and Jefferson County to a voter referendum. The legislation allowed the existing 90 or so independent cities in Jefferson County to stay, but no new cities would be allowed to incorporate.
That all changes next year, with the implementation of HB 314.
Starting July 15, residents will be able to submit a petition to Metro Council to form a new city. If at least two-thirds of qualified voters in the area sign the petition, the council will have no choice but to approve it.
Residents will also have to submit a detailed plan to the Circuit Court, including a list of services their new city will provide. They’ll have to prove they can get a functioning local government together in a reasonable timeframe.
When HB 314 was making its way through the legislature last year, most of Louisville’s state and local leaders opposed it.
Three Metro Council members spoke at a House committee meeting that March, including Bill Hollander, then the chair of the council’s Budget Committee.
Hollander told state lawmakers that some insurance premium taxes would be diverted away from Louisville Metro to any new city. He said that revenue stream accounted for more than 10% of Metro’s annual general fund budget of around $650 million.
“Allowing new cities to be created reduces that revenue stream to Louisville Metro and threatens our ability to provide important countywide services,” he said.
Some Republican Metro Council members disagree with Hollander’s assessment.
District 19’s Anthony Piagentini, who heads the council’s Republican Caucus, said in an interview this summer that it’s not clear whether new cities will be a net loss for Louisville Metro. He said while Metro Government would lose some revenue, it would also have to provide less services to those residents.
“[New cities] become responsible for the roads overnight,” he said. “So, if we’re spending $30 million on road repaving, it’s shut off instantaneously. Sidewalks, roads, whatever, that becomes their responsibility solely, as well as several other things.”
Piagentini said he hasn’t seen any official analysis of how much Louisville Metro stands to lose, or gain, due to the formation of new cities.
Starting at zero
There are hushed discussions happening across Jefferson County about what building a new small city might mean and whether it’s the right approach
Republican Metro Council Member Dan Seum Jr. represents Fairdale, a mostly rural community next to Jefferson Memorial Forest, as part of District 13. Seum said many residents share a feeling that decision makers downtown have forgotten about Fairdale.
“There’s been no focus here for so long,” he said. “I mean, you go up and down Dixie [Highway], there’s not a department store. They’re all fast food restaurants. And the infrastructure is just not there.”
Seum was elected to Metro Council late last year, flipping a seat Democrats had held since 2003. He said his promise to bring funding for parks, roads and development into the district resonated with voters. Since then, some of those same people have asked him to support a push for an independent Fairdale. Seum said he’s asking them to wait.
“I’ve told my folks, give us a shot to work with this,” he said. “If we can’t, I’ll lead it and I’ll run for mayor if you want.”
A hypothetical City of Fairdale would have fewer than 10,000 residents.
Sharon Woodring, who’s lived in Fairdale for more than 40 years, said she’s concerned a small local government wouldn’t be able to fund community improvements.
She said she remembers an effort, years ago, to turn a vacant lot into a public park.
“We went to the Parks Department and said, ‘We need you to kind of put this under your umbrella,’” Woodring said. “Well, it doesn’t work like that when you get government involved.”
What Woodring expected to be a small project turned into a multi-million dollar development.
“What would your tax rate have to be to support those kinds of projects?” she said. “You know, if you’re going to start a new city then your checking account starts out at zero.”
In the Pleasure Ridge Park, Valley Station area of southwest Louisville, Rep. Bauman said he’s assembled a steering committee of about a dozen business and community leaders. He wouldn’t name them for this story, but Bauman said they’re putting together a serious proposal for incorporation.
“The options that we’re looking at are different forms of government, what types of services do we want to offer, do we want sanitation, do we want policing, how is this going to be financed?” he said.
According to Bauman, the committee is looking at a singular city for PRP and Valley Station. If they were to incorporate that way, the city would have a population of around 50,000.
Council Member Piagentini, whose district includes parts of Middletown, said he wouldn’t be surprised to see some new cities in the South End. He thinks changes are likely coming to the East End, too.
“These large homeowners associations are one breath away from being a suburban city,” he said. “They aggregate their trash collection. They maintain common spaces. In some cases, they're hiring security guards, even though they can't technically have sworn law enforcement officers. So, in some cases, you won't see a big colossal difference.”
Metro Council Member Rick Blackwell, a Democrat who represents part of the area Bauman wants to incorporate, told LPM News he doubts things will get that far. Blackwell said if people want to pay more money for more services, they’ll likely just move to an existing independent city.
“When you move into [Jeffersontown] or you move into Middletown, you already know what they offer,” he said. “You know if that's worth your tax money or not. If you're saying, ‘Let's create a new city of PRP, but we need to tax you first and trust we'll be able to deliver services later,’ that's a different sell.”
Blackwell said he’s heard rumblings of incorporation in PRP before, but he thinks there are too few people willing to take on the “gargantuan effort” of forming a new government.
He said, following merger, there was an attempt in the PRP area to form what’s known as a special service district. It’s a way for a community to pool resources to contract out a specific service. In this case, it was trash collection. Blackwell said once you got into the details, those conversations would break down.
“How many people do you have to have agree?” he said. “[If] it stretches out over a long period of time, now do we still have enough people that agree who actually still live here? There’s just a lot to it.”
Bauman said efforts to form new cities in the South End are still early days and he acknowledged it’s not easy work.
“It’s certainly not something that I can do myself,” he said. “I cannot accomplish the work that’s going to be the next steps, organizing most importantly.”
He said Louisville will find out over the next 10 months how serious residents are about building new local governments from scratch.
We examined the ways the city-county merger affects Louisvillians’ lives now. Explore more stories from our series, “How merger reshaped Louisville.”