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January 14, 2009

Money on the mind

Budget shortfall will dominate Metro Council business in 2009

The Louisville Metro Council began the year with a surprising show of bipartisanship by unanimously electing Democrat David Tandy as their new president. Hoping to capitalize on that unity, the new leader now is ready to tackle the city’s budget crisis.

But exactly how the Metro Council plans to address the city’s projected $20 million revenue shortfall remains unclear, as does the rest of its legislative agenda for 2009.

Unlike the state lawmakers in Frankfort, who file an array of bills before the legislative session, the part-time members of the council rarely outline a legislative agenda, instead addressing issues as they arise. And despite Metro government’s budget shortfall and Mayor Jerry Abramson’s cuts in spending and city services, the council has no blueprint for how to deal with Louisville’s worst budget bleed in three decades.

Although Tandy would not speculate on what might appear on the council’s agenda this year, he says struggling to dig the city out of its deep budget hole will be a top priority.

“First and foremost we will be looking to address the economic situation that we find our city in and how to deal with that while providing services that are necessary for the people of Louisville,” says the District 4 councilman. “That’s the primary challenge.”

Without citing specific plans, Tandy says he anticipates focusing on ways to invest in economic development, which will in turn lead to increased job growth in the city.

“You try to deal with issues as they’re presented,” Tandy says. “But you can always look for ways we can maximize our tax dollars and how they’re being used. Part of it is encouraging development activities and creating the jobs with an educated workforce and a city that will attract and retain them. It’s a long-term approach.”

Councilman Kevin Kramer, R-11, Republican caucus chairman, agrees that the main issue that will eclipse city hall and dominate council business will be the ongoing economic crisis.

“As much as there are things we’d love to talk about, the reality is the budget is going to overshadow most of what this year is going to entail,” Kramer says. “If we were $20 million short in our projections this fiscal year, you can figure the amount of money that’s incoming in the next year will be equally low.”

There is an opening in the budget discussion, however, for council Republicans to push for more transparency in Metro government. For example, Republicans likely will resurrect efforts to carry out a cost-efficiency study that proponents say could save Metro millions.

Initially proposed in 2007 by Councilman Ken Fleming, R-7, the cost-efficiency study is aimed at assessing how much is being spent on city services versus the benefit of various operations, says Kramer.

“I can’t imagine that won’t come back up as an issue,” Kramer says. “A cost-efficiency study would look at how we’re spending money, which services are government responsibilities and which are the ones we took on because we had a surplus to do it.”

With a diminished 10-member minority caucus, however, council Republicans will find it even more difficult to push through legislation this year. Leading up to last week’s debate over a GOP-supported ethics ordinance, the Republicans were threatening a filibuster. But after realizing council Democrats could easily kill the ethics ordinance, the minority party quickly settled for a compromise offered by Tandy, the ordinance’s co-sponsor, tabling the vote until February.

Despite the setback, Kramer says his caucus members hope to kick off their agenda with the passage of a revised ethics ordinance, although he acknowledges council Republicans will have a tougher time passing legislation or changing policy without the cooperation of at least a few Democrats.

“We have to make sure there’s not a belief of having this majority means we can do whatever we want,” says Councilwoman Tina Ward-Pugh, D-9.

With a healthy 16-member majority, Democrats must be willing to work with Republicans to ensure there’s a healthy debate on every issue, she says.

In December, Ward-Pugh was the lone Democrat to sign a letter — along with Republicans Kelly Downard and Hal Heiner — questioning the mayor’s authority to commit cash and property to the downtown Center City project, an expansion of Fourth Street Live being developed by The Cordish Cos. The letter — sent to Attorney General Jack Conway — also questions Abramson’s right to divert $700,000 each year from Louisville Slugger Field lease payments to fund the Downtown Development Corp., a private, nonprofit agency tasked with assisting Metro in redeveloping downtown.

Depending on Conway’s response, the request could have serious ramifications, potentially broadening the council’s authority.

“The only checks and balances for the council are once a year, when we approve the budget, and appointments to all of the boards and commissions that help to govern the city,” Ward-Pugh says. “It lends itself to too much [mayoral] power.”

Whatever council members unveil this year will be shaped in large part by the attorney general’s opinion: If his response gives Metro Council more authority, more aggressive legislation could be on the horizon.

Council members from both parties should be concerned about the exercise of power from the administration, says Ward-Pugh. Whether the attorney general rules in the council’s favor or not, the legal opinion will help clarify the balance of power that city lawmakers have been debating since city and county governments merged in 2003.

“I don’t believe the mayor is a bad person or that he’s acting with malice in making these decisions,” Ward-Pugh says, “but I hope for a clarification on decisions where we have little or no oversight.”