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Individual trash pickup? Why merging governments didn’t extend services to all Louisville residents

A graphic that says "How merger reshaped Louisville" and shows a map of Louisville
Mindy Fulner
In some parts of Louisville, residents are still responsible for setting up their own essential services, like trash pickup.

Nearly half of all Louisville residents live in areas where they have to arrange services like trash pickup household by household. They pay lower taxes, but some are still looking for ways to get their services consolidated, similar to what other people in the city have.

Melodie Humphrey lives in a subdivision between Pleasure Ridge Park and Valley Station.

It’s pretty much what you imagine when you think of a suburban cul-de-sac: neatly mowed lawns, two car garages, cookie-cutter houses, that kind of thing. But the homes have some variety, too. Specifically, the trash bins are a range of colors. None of them are the iconic black bins provided by the city of Louisville.

“There’s HomeTown [Hauling] down at the end,” Humphrey said, pointing out trash cans on her street during a recent afternoon walk. “[There’s] Rumpke [Waste and Recycling], Waste Management…”

Humphrey uses yet another trash company. From the view in her driveway, that’s four waste companies accounted for. She said each company collects the waste on a different day of the week.

“Different day of the week, always trash trucks,” Humphrey said, calling it a nuisance. “Some people have recycling and waste, and recycling comes on a different day.”

Humphrey said there’s only one street light on her block and it’s not on. That’s because residents have to request for the power company to place a light in their yard. Then, they are responsible for the electricity cost. As a mother, she thinks street lights would make the neighborhood safer for her kids.

“Especially once it gets colder and it stays darker, you want streetlights in the morning when your kids are trying to get on the school bus,” she said.

Louisville has an urban service district, which matches the old city boundaries. There are also roughly 80 suburban cities that provide some services to their residents. Everything else is Louisville’s formerly unincorporated area, where about half the county’s population lives. There, residents have to individually arrange things like trash pickup, street lights, and snow plows.

Humphrey said when Louisville and Jefferson County merged governments back in 2003, she thought she’d get the opportunity to buy into those everyday services, too. But the merger never resulted in an expansion.

“I think I expected at some point, for them to move the services beyond the urban service district…and it would become a true merged government,” she said. “There isn’t a benefit to regular people.”

There were two attempts to merge Louisville and Jefferson County in the early 1980s. Under those plans, services like trash would have been combined for everyone. But people were worried that would also mean higher taxes, and the merger attempts failed at the ballot.

Jerry Abramson was the first mayor in the merged government and campaigned heavily for it. He said in 2000, pro-merger leaders went with sort of a “merger à la carte” approach to win votes.

“We lost in ‘82, and ‘83, because things were specific,” Abramson said. “So what we did in this merger vote was to merge the fiscal court and the Board of Aldermen. And then…we let the council members decide what should be merged.”

Merger created the Louisville Metro Council of today. Abramson said the council didn’t merge services like trash pickup,or street lights or other services because they’d be expensive for the city. But they did merge some others, like the removal of abandoned cars.

“Now did the average person realize that was because of a merger? I doubt it,” Abramson said. “But they saw less abandoned cars in Valley Station.”

Rick Blackwell has been on the council since it started 20 years ago. He said he still gets calls from folks he represents grumbling that people in the urban core of Louisville get services they don’t. He reminds them, this is what they voted for: less taxes.

“That's the piece that most people don't realize or don't want to realize,” he said. “There’s nothing free. Wherever you have more services, you're paying for it in the form of more taxes.”

Blackwell said, of course, most people say they don’t want to pay more taxes. Tax hikes are also unpopular at the polls. But then he watches as his residents in formerly unincorporated areas move to suburban cities in and around Louisville Metro because they offer more services. Of course those places also demand higher taxes.

“People are coming to [suburban cities] because you're providing services, as opposed to staying put in [Pleasure Ridge Park] and saying, ‘OK, let's do the hard work of, one, creating a service district or, two, creating the city of PRP.’”

That last concept, creating a new independent city within Louisville, will become possible for the first time next summer

But the “hard work” option of creating a special service district was a small feature built into the merger. It’s one of the only options, outside of homeowners’ associations, for residents of formerly unincorporated areas to get group services.

With a special service district, people could band together and get just one company to pick up everyone’s trash, hopefully for a cheaper price.

Blackwell said he’s seen several unsuccessful efforts at creating special service districts come and go. He and Abramson actually worked together soon after the merger to create one. But residents squabbled over additional fees for things like recycling, yard waste and large item pickup.

Some people even refused to cooperate unless their current trash company was promised the contract, which goes against government bidding laws, he said.

“I still feel the bruises,” Blackwell said. “It got crazy. We never were able to get to a point where we could say, ‘Here's what we have to offer and here's the [tax] rate that we can offer.’”

Humphrey, the homeowner out in the southwest part of the county, was behind one of the latest attempts at setting up a special service district. She hoped to alleviate that constant stream of trash trucks and randomly placed street lights that were never lit.

She and a neighbor went door to door and worked to set up a community meeting.

“Most people were like, ‘Uhhh…I don’t know. I don’t know,’” Humphrey said. “So we didn’t get a definitive response until no one showed up at the meeting.”

Humphrey’s effort simply fizzled out.

Both Blackwell and Abramson said that in the 20 years since merger, no one has ever made it work.

We examined the ways the city-county merger affects Louisvillians’ lives now. Explore more stories from our series, “How merger reshaped Louisville.”

Justin is LPM's Data Reporter. Email Justin at jhicks@lpm.org.