July 24, 2007

City Strobe

Is there a second way to fund the Library plan?If you pay more than middling attention to the news of the day in Louisville Metro, you know there is an effort afoot to pump serious funding to the Louisville Free Public Library system. The Metro Council, whose role in this initiative is now purely administrative, fulfilled its first obligation by conducting a public hearing last Thursday, where 45 people spoke — 44 in favor of a new occupational tax to fund the expansion and one person who raised concerns about how the initiative has been handled. Metro voters will be asked to support a 0.2 percent increase in the occupational tax on individuals, and 0.2 percent on business profits. In real numbers, a person earning $35,000 a year would pay $70 in additional occupational taxes. Based on projections, the new tax would raise about $40 million a year. Given that the Metro’s current library funding — about $17 million this fiscal year — would revert to the general fund, the library would stand to see about $23 million a year in new money.There seems to be no opposition to the idea that the library system needs more resources. Nor has anyone tried to refute the important role libraries play in the educational and cultural advancement of citizens. There are, however, some who think there is another way to skin a cat. To wit, Metro Councilman Hal Heiner, R-19, yesterday released a plan that he says shows how Metro government can fully fund the $200 million library expansion without raising taxes.It calls for Metro Council to issue $25 million in bonds for each of the next seven years, for a total of $175 million. The remaining $25 million would come from funds raised by the Library Foundation. To operate the new libraries — to staff them and keep the lights on — the Heiner plan would increase library appropriations by $1.5 million per year for the next seven years.Heiner said his plan makes sense because the city will soon pay off several large bond issues, meaning new bond issues won’t be a significant drain on city finances. With consistent revenue growth, and with the city already highly taxed relative to other large U.S. cities, he believes it is more fiscally sound to avoid new taxes.After the Tuesday press conference, Library director Craig Buthod issued a statement saying he believes the tax plan is still the best way to go. “We’re following the lead of 104 of Kentucky’s other 119 counties in seeking to establish a dependable stream of funding that will keep council members from having to weigh library needs against the need for more firefighters, more police and more road repairs.”Another key aspect of the debate concerns library oversight. Currently the system is an agency of Metro government; if the referendum passes, the library will break off and form its own district, with taxing authority and a new five-person library board appointed by the Mayor. It is unclear how much support Heiner’s plan has across the council. A handful of Republicans attended the press conference and said they supported the plan. Council president Rick Blackwell, D-12, did not return a phone call before press time; Tina Ward-Pugh, 9, was the lone Democrat at the press conference. Afterward, she said she came to learn about the plan, and out of respect for Heiner’s business acumen.Asked by reporters Tuesday why his plan was only coming out now, Heiner said the council had expected Buthod to initiate discussions on how to fund the seven-year-old Master Plan, but that didn’t happen. Instead, he said, the council learned of the tax initiative in May, through the media. Ward-Pugh noted that although council members did not know when such an initiative would be advanced, they had known of its likelihood for at least five years. Chad Carlton, a spokesman for Mayor Abramson, also declined to comment on Heiner’s plan because he had not seen it before press time. Carlton said Abramson believes the best way to expand the library is through the tax, and that Metro government’s ongoing financial burdens make it too difficult to count on sufficient funding for the Master Plan.Heiner said the alternate plan would be posted on his Web site, www.hotlinetohal.com. —Cary StemleCouncil eliminates civilian review board When the City of Louisville’s Board of Aldermen created the Civilian Police Review Authority in 2000, it was one of the most controversial ordinances in city history. By a 6-5 vote (the alderman who would’ve cast the tying vote was out of town), aldermen established an 11-member panel with the ability to investigate controversial police actions — for instance, a police shooting. It was vetoed by then-Mayor Dave Armstrong; the aldermen overrode the veto shortly thereafter. The Metro Council eliminated that body, quietly, at its June 28 meeting. As part of the merger between the old city and county governments, all laws on the books would sunset by the end of this year unless the council reenacts them. In this case, the Civilian Police Review Authority was one of several provisions in a portion of the Metro Code of Ordinances that council members dropped — without much of any fanfare or discussion. The history of civilian review here is complex and rife with controversy. Broad community interest in civilian review of the police department piqued when two officers shot and killed Desmond Rudolph, an unarmed teenager in a stolen SUV, in 1999. The officers were cleared of any misconduct and given medals of valor by then-Police Chief Gene Sherrard. Armstrong fired the police chief, saying the culture at the LPD needed a change. Citizen outcry for a more comprehensive way to hold police accountable — aside from the department’s internal investigations — was at a fever pitch. Ultimately, the aldermen passed an ordinance offering the board subpoena power — the main point of disagreement between the sides — and said the real test should come from the courts on the subpoena question. Somewhat famously, the ordinance was never implemented and, thus, never tested. Instead, upon merger and Mayor Abramson’s re-election in 2003, he established the Citizens Commission on Police Accountability, a vaguely similar body that some have called a paper tiger for its lack of investigative and subpoena powers — in effect, it must rely on internal police investigations rather than its own. K.A. Owens, of the broad-based group Citizens Against Police Abuse, said it’s a shame the ordinance was never implemented. “A progressive city the size of Louisville should have this type of ordinance on the books and should be implementing it,” he said. Councilman Kevin Kramer, R-11, whose amendment removed the board from the ordinance, said he and other council members are confident that the Police Merit Board and the Citizens Commission on Police Accountability provide enough oversight. —Stephen GeorgeContact the writers at citystrobe@leoweekly.com