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June 3, 2009

Honey, I shrunk the Metro

Declining revenue leads to a slimmer, slower city government

For the past two years Mayor Jerry Abramson has managed to balance tight budgets and fill revenue shortfalls without raising taxes or letting go of government employees.

When the mayor announced this year’s proposed $828 million budget, however, city workers were not spared: Metro government’s current $25 million budget shortfall — combined with Louisville’s double-digit unemployment rate and a deepening recession — has prompted the administration to eliminate 528 Metro government positions in the face of an anticipated 1.4 percent decrease in city revenue.

Despite assurances that the public will see little change in day-to-day operations, the eliminated positions — including 119 layoffs effective July 1 — will result in a slimmer and slower Metro government.

“This has been the most difficult budget in my 20 years as mayor,” Abramson has said repeatedly in recent days, in speeches, press releases and informal meetings.

In addition to calling for layoffs, the mayor plans to continue many of the money-saving measures instituted in recent months, like closing nonessential government offices for four additional furlough days, freezing salaries for non-union employees, and raising local fees for construction permits, alcohol licenses and inmate bookings at the jail. The administration also plans to reduce the frequency of junk pick-up and street sweeping.

But it’s the employee layoffs and elimination of vacant positions that will undoubtedly slow down city agencies and services.

Public Safety

Citing public safety as a top priority, the mayor has proposed only a 1.3 percent employee reduction for departments that fall under that category. Public safety makes up the city’s single largest expenditure, taking up 56 percent of the general fund.

Eight positions will be eliminated from Louisville Fire, Metro EMS and Metro Corrections, meaning the bulk of the cuts will come from Metro Police, which is slated to lay off 34 civilian employees who perform mostly clerical duties. Those positions include a property room supervisor, criminal justice specialist and two crime scene unit technician trainees.

The police department tried to minimize job cuts by prioritizing what officials thought they could lose without impacting public safety. Even though no sworn officers are being laid off, Chief Robert White acknowledges losing civilian employees will result in slower operations.

“Administratively things will take longer. Obviously it’s going to be an impact, so people are going to have to work harder, but most of the impact will be felt internally,” White says. “My heart goes out to the family members and the employees who lost their jobs, but we did the best we could. I feel comfortable when it is all said and done, we will still be very efficient. We’ll be able to improvise and be not as effective, but be very effective.”

It’s a step backward given one of White’s first goals as chief was to swap out a number of administrative positions filled by officers with civilian staff, resulting in more cops on the street.

“Those positions and that work will have to be done by someone and there’s concern it might have to be sworn officers,” says FOP President John McGuire. “It appears we’re to the point where without putting safety at risk there’s really not a lot of fluff in the police department budget left to cut.”

Neighborhoods

In an effort to scale back last year’s budget deficit, Abramson slashed funding to the Department of Neighborhoods by 11 percent. This year, he’s at it again, which is odd given it was the mayor who launched the department four years ago to help connect citizens to government. Some Metro Council members have criticized the department, calling it unnecessary and ineffective.

The mayor has suggested cutting $1.75 million from the department, the largest cut of any city agency. As a result, the agency is expected to eliminate 39 positions, including eight that are currently filled. Those losses will cut the department’s number of neighborhood outreach representatives in half.

Parks

Another department taking serious cuts is Metro Parks, which will likely lose 148 positions that are currently vacant. In addition to saving money through staff cuts, officials expect to scale back park maintenance, recreational activities and educational programs, with the hope of avoiding closing entire community centers, summer camps and youth sports leagues.

The department has already shelved a handful of arts activities this year and discontinued grass cutting in less-used areas of the parks.

“We’re still working to determine which specific public programs will be impacted,” says Jason Cissell, a Metro Parks spokesman, adding the department has eliminated its summer and winter performing arts programs it provided at senior centers, libraries and the YMCA. “We’re going to have to figure out how we’ll reorganize to minimize these reductions.”

Council review

The Metro Council will thoroughly review and amend the mayor’s proposed budget during a series of hearings this month.

“Competition among departments for funding will be at a higher level than previous years,” says Councilman Kelly Downard, R-16, vice chairman of the budget committee. “This budget process will present us with the perfect opportunity to prioritize government services and look for more efficient means to operate Metro government.”

During past budget cycles, council members had the opportunity to add spending to the administration’s initial recommendations. This year, however, the mayor has warned that such additions are not an option.

 “If it’s a service that may be good, may be fun, may be valuable, but it’s not mission-critical, then you’re going to have to cut it,” Downard says. “Will it slow down Metro government? Yes. Will that be good or bad? I don’t know. What we have to do is find a way to provide the best possible service the least expensively. We have to cut cost somewhere.”

City lawmakers must approve a final version on June 25.