First-term Councilwoman Dorsey calls vote against tax hike a stand against ‘status quo’

Councilwoman Keisha Dorsey, D-3 | Photo via Facebook page

Most members of Metro Council go many months into their first term in office before having to vote on a very important and contentious issue, but that was not the case for the eight new members who voted two weeks ago on the failed ordinance seeking a tax increase.

Five of those new members voted against the proposed ordinance to nearly double the tax rate on most types of insurance premiums — raising over $20 million in tax revenue in the face of a $35 million budget shortfall in the next fiscal year beginning July 1 — which ultimately was rejected by a bipartisan 11-15 vote.

Though none of those members who cast dissenting votes chose to explain their vote during that Metro Council meeting, a bipartisan group of nine members — five Republicans and four Democrats — held a news conference last week to explain their no votes and push back against criticism from Mayor Greg Fischer.

One of those members who spoke at the news conference was first-term Councilwoman Keisha Dorsey, a Democrat serving the West End District 3 that stretches from the Parkland and California neighborhoods down to Shively.

Whereas Fischer blasted those members for rejecting new revenue in the face of a budget shortfall that will now require painful cuts to government services and layoffs, Dorsey instead characterized her vote as “a stance of no to the status quo.”

“Operating as we always have is no longer enough,” said Dorsey. “I was elected to be the voice of change that my neighborhood needs. We want more, we deserve more and we demand more.”

Saying that her district was dealing with “systemic issues of neglect that span decades,” Dorsey said they were not asking for anything new, “other than a new perspective and new heightened priority to actualize the full potential of the very services that we are being asked to help maintain.”

A sad excuse for a sidewalk in Metro Council’s District 3 | Photo via Councilwoman Keisha Dorsey, D-3

After the news conference, Dorsey shared photos from near her home in District 3 with Insider Louisville to further explain what she meant, which showed long-neglected sidewalks and muddy alleyways that were littered with items dumped there and not cleaned up by the city.

“This is what we’ve gotten for over 20 years,” said Dorsey. “We haven’t experienced the services we’re saying are going to be cut … This is our status quo. Where do we even get services?”

Dorsey said she shared a video with the mayor that she shot of a constituent complaining that sidewalks on 22nd Street hadn’t been repaired in the over 40 years that he had lived there, highlighting this as an example of status quo of neglect there — and a reason to be skeptical that this would change with a tax increase.

“We have a sidewalk plan that is supposed to fix sidewalks,” said Dorsey. “So Mayor Fischer, we’re asking a man who’s lived there since 1978 to trust us to increase a tax to put in sidewalks that haven’t been done since 1978? Well, what makes this man that voted for me want to say ‘yes’ to a tax?”

Asked how more budget cuts to city services and programs would actually improve city government’s ability to pave those sidewalks, board up vacant housing and prevent illegal dumping, Dorsey said the current situation should be a wake-up call to have conversations about how promised services can be actualized.

“I think there are very hard questions that need to be answered,” said Dorsey. “And if we just say ‘yes’ and don’t bring those questions to the table, what’s changed? This will force us to look at the effectiveness and efficiency of the current services we have.”

While conceding that residents don’t want to lose services like the library or programs assisting low-income people, Dorsey felt it was necessary to ask if those came at a cost, as “if you give us these programs, does that mean that we lose on out infrastructure?”

“The programs we receive do indeed feed us for the day,” said Dorsey. “But we, however, are asking for the tools to allow us to fish.”

Dorsey’s arguments were similar to those expressed at the news conference by Councilwoman Marilyn Parker, R-18, one of the most conservative members of the council.

Parker said the $35 million in cuts would not be “draconian” and instead called it a “manufactured crisis,” but also identified a potential silver lining in the situation, as it is “forcing us to look at the way we been doing our budget and our spending habits, things that we should have been looking at in years past.”

But according to a list of potential layoffs and cuts to services that was released by the mayor’s office in February — identified as possibilities for the chopping block without significant new tax revenue — District 3 would be far from immune, including its sidewalks and littered alleyways.

According to Fischer’s spreadsheet of potential cuts, 10 employees of Public Works and Assets could be laid off, which would “lower maintenance of roads and sidewalks, mowing and litter pickup” and “double response time to citizen complaints.” Potential Public Works cuts also included moving recycling and yard waste collection from a weekly to biweekly service.

The mayor’s list also included the possibility of the closure of the public pool in the Algonquin neighborhood and the public library branch in Shively, both in District 3.

While the mayor’s potential cuts also included significant ones to public safety — including reducing the number of police officers by the hundreds and closing four fire stations — those in the bipartisan group of council members that voted against the tax ordinance all say that public safety should be exempt from cuts in the next fiscal year. However, Fischer and council members who supported the tax hike say that such a promise is unrealistic with $35 million to cut, as public safety takes up two-thirds of the budget.

At a news conference the day after Metro Council rejected the proposed tax increase, Mayor Fischer laid the blame for the “painful” $35 million in service cuts to come squarely at the feet of those members who voted against it, saying they “didn’t rise to the occasion to protect their constituents.”

Speaking with clients and volunteers at one of the city’s senior nutrition site, Fischer told them to “make sure your Metro Council people know how they hurt you last night. That’s the bottom line.” He added: “When you see them, or when you vote for them, let them know you remember that.”

Councilwoman Dorsey took office in January.

Dorsey was one of several members to push back against Fischer at their news conference last week, saying that as a newly elected council member, “we need to be careful not to demonize representatives for their votes.”

“I would challenge us not to attack each other, but to attack the very issues that we’re dealing with,” said Dorsey. “So will the rallying cry of this compassionate city be to indict and incite, or will we innovate, initiate, collaborate and communicate? You decide how we get to move forward.”

In the two weeks leading up to the council vote on the tax ordinance, Dorsey’s office hosted a two-question multiple-choice survey for anyone to participate in and express their views on a potential tax increase and budget cuts.

The first question asked if they favored a 12.5 to 15 percent increase to insurance premium taxes, an 8 to 10 percent tax increase along with budget cuts (similar to the ordinance that was rejected) or no tax increase. The second question asked — in the case of taxes not being raised to 12.5 to 15 percent — if they would favor cutting public safety, non-essential services or across the board along al city departments.

Dorsey’s office did not immediately share the results of that survey.

Mayor Fischer is expected to present his proposed budget for the next fiscal year to Metro Council at their meeting on April 25. Metro Council will hold numerous budget meetings in the following two months and must approve a final budget by their last meeting in June.