Metro Council approves budget for next fiscal year

Louisville Metro Council chambers | Photo by Jeremy Chisenhall

Louisville Metro Council on Tuesday passed the operating and capital budget for the 2019-2020 fiscal year, finalizing an uncommonly difficult process that kicked off five months ago when Mayor Greg Fischer warned of a pending $35 million shortfall for the city.

The operating budget passed Tuesday night by a 24-1 vote was largely unchanged from the amended version passed by the council’s budget committee last week, which included most of the $25.5 million in cuts from Fischer’s budget proposal unveiled in April.

Fischer originally called for a significant increase to the tax rate on most types of insurance premiums in order to create $35 million in new revenue and avoid cuts to services and hundreds of layoffs across all city departments, though the council in March rejected a compromise effort to raise $20 million in tax revenue by a 11-15 vote.

In his statement following the vote, the mayor cited the council’s rejection of new tax revenue, stating that “this budget is not what a thriving city like ours deserves, and it is not the budget that any of us want.”

The lone vote against the operating budget was made by Councilwoman Madonna Flood, D-24, who fought back tears to say that she could not vote for cuts to so many services that will negatively affect the most vulnerable in Louisville. She also lamented that the council voted to reject new tax revenue in March to prevent much of the coming cuts and layoffs, to the applause of city workers watching the meeting in the council chambers.

The budget proposed by the mayor in April cut public safety by eliminating 48 LMPD officer positions through attrition and closing one fire station, which would eliminate 15 firefighter positions. It also called for dramatically cutting back other government services and departments, such as the closure of two library branches and the cutting back of hours, the closure of all four of the city’s outdoor pools and moving weekly pickup of recycling and yard waste to every other week.

Last Thursday, the budget committee unanimously passed an amended version of the mayor’s budget that shifted some of these cuts around, putting appropriations back into libraries, pools and waste pickups, while adding new cuts to the city’s violence “interrupters” program and eliminating Youth Detention Services by the end of the year.

The amended budget that was finalized by the full council on Tuesday adds $1.4 million for the Louisville Free Public Library, restoring the normal hours for the 14 neighborhood branches and allowing the reopening of the Middletown branch in the near future — moves that are expected to preserve most of the 92 positions that would have been eliminated.

Though the city’s four outdoor pools will remain closed throughout this summer, the budget now includes $200,000 to reopen the Algonquin and Sun Valley pools in the summer of 2020, while the amended capital budget includes $400,000 to repair those two pools and $800,000 in bonding to convert the Camp Taylor and Fairdale pools into splash parks.

The budget also restores $318,000 of funding for Public Works to maintain weekly recycling and yard waste pickup services, plus $333,200 of funding to allow a new LMPD recruiting class to begin a month earlier next year and increase the allowance of those recruits.

The council also amended the budget to significantly increase the amount of discretionary funds each member could spend on groups and projects in their districts, in addition to the each members’ budget for office costs.

The most significant new cut in the amended and finalized budget involved transferring the city’s services for incarcerated and at-risk youth to the state by the end of this year, which would save roughly $1.3 million once excess funds are directed to renewing the city’s $400,000 contract with Shotspotter, technology that alerts the police to potential gunfire in certain high-crime areas.

Ending Youth Detention Services is a controversial move that would not only lead to the layoff of over 100 city employees, but appears likely to move incarcerated youth far away from their families in Louisville to far corners of the state. While the budget includes language requesting that the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety maintain such services in Jefferson County, Sec. John Tilley indicated last week that the state agency would not be able to do that.

The finalized budget also cuts an additional $1 million from the Office for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods, creating the closure of three of the city’s four Red Dots sites employing “interrupters” in high-crime areas to prevent violence. The personnel of the city’s economic development is also cut by an additional $302,100, while the Office of Performance Improvement was cut an additional $283,000.

Fischer’s statement on the passage of the amended budget shared concerns that while it increased services for libraries and the discretionary spending accounts of council members, it did so “by closing Youth Detention Services, before we can work out a solution with the State to keep our most vulnerable youth near their families and their schools.”

Despite those disagreements with the amendments, Fischer indicated that he would sign the budget, move forward “and find ways to implement them with the least amount of pain to our residents.”

“With our pension costs continuing to increase over the coming years, more cuts will keep coming,” added Fischer. “I don’t like it, but that’s reality. I understand that many people do not want to raise taxes, but no one likes service cuts either. We must face the reality that we must have new revenue if we want to continue to pursue greatness for our city.”

Councilman Bill Hollander, D-9 — the chair of the budget committee who sponsored the rejected ordinance to raise new tax revenue — was the only member to comment on the operating budget before it was passed, warning that increasing pension costs in every coming year would cause budget items were spared from the chopping block this year to come right back again next year unless more revenue was identified.

This story has been updated.