Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer sat down for an interview with Insider Louisville on New Year’s Eve, discussing a range of issues the city faced in 2014, as well as what’s on his agenda for the year ahead.
Highlights of the conversation include Fischer’s wish list for the upcoming legislative session in Frankfort, a look back at the ordinance to raise the local minimum wage and Metro Council’s report that criticized his administration’s handling of Metro Animal Services. Fischer also looked ahead to the proposed Cordish-Omni deal, the possibility of permanently funding the Louisville Affordable Housing Trust Fund, the contract dispute at MSD, and local police reforms in the wake of Ferguson protests.
Insider Louisville: With Frankfort’s General Assembly session starting next week, what legislation are you hoping will pass that can help Louisville?
Greg Fischer: Well, our vital one is the local option sales tax. We’ve made a lot of progress this past year around the state, in terms of: a) understanding that it’s a vote, and b) a lot of the communities around the state are talking about different projects that they would like to have for their community, but they don’t have the money for, either at the local or state level. I think you saw that come together when it was named House Bill 1 and had support from both the minority leader and the speaker at the same time.
There’s a lot of work left to do, but that’s a critical issue for us. We’re competing against cities that are investing all the time, that have more tools to invest than we do. So we’ve got to be attentive to what our capital needs are here, our built environment, our public transportation issues, to compete to be one of the great large-to-medium-sized cities in the country. So it’s important for us, but it’s important for any community of any size in this state.
IL: You mentioned the LIFT bill was named HB 1 in the House, so its prospects appear pretty good there. But what do you think about its prospects in the state Senate?
GF: Well, we’re hopeful. They understand from people all over the state how important it is. They have not had to really think about what they’re going to be doing with this bill yet, because last year that’s what they kept saying: “We’ll see if it passes, and we’ll deal with it.”
And they’re hearing the same arguments the House members are hearing relative to local control and home rule, which is really the essence of the local option. Those are strong Republican principles, and of course the Senate is controlled by the Republicans, so I hope they’ll take a look at that. It could be an example of how the House and Senate can work together to get something done for the good of the state.
IL: If LIFT does pass and Louisville decides to go forward with it, what are some specific projects that you would like to see funded?
GF: Well, the first time we’d even be able to do it as a community would be November of 2018, so it’s a ways away. But you can take a look at what’s in the Vision Louisville project. The No. 1 thing that came out of that is connectivity, how we can pull the community together in all kinds of different ways. The important thing to me is we have a process in place to develop the project. So it will be an investment committee-driven process from voices all around the community about projects that are important. It will be a basket of projects where people can see transformational types of community projects or projects that pull the community together — the completion of the 100-mile loop is an example — and then projects that are important to the different geographic areas in our communities at the same time. I’m focused on the process of having projects being completed, and this just being good public policy.
IL: Are you going to propose or advocate for a dedicated funding stream for the Louisville Affordable Housing Trust Fund in the coming year?
GF: Well, I am focused on being able to see more affordable housing take place in the community. And when that occurs, the Metro Council and I need to be on the same page as to how it’s done. So I’m committed to having that conversation with them to see how we can make that happen. You can have a dedicated funding stream, there could be a budgetary allocation of some kind. But ultimately we do need some kind of regular stream in there. It’s an area that I’ve identified as something I definitely want to see take place here in this second term.
IL: If LIFT passes, could the local option sales tax be directed toward the LAHTF?
GF: Not a trust fund, per se, but specific projects could take place in that.
IL: What has been the holdup on the Cordish-Omni deal? And once that deal is released, do you think there should be a thorough debate within Metro Council over whether to approve that?
GF: Well, the council should thoroughly debate everything that comes before them. It’s a big project. It’s going to be about a $300 million project, and it’s going to have a major effect on downtown, and the region for that matter, when it takes place. So we’ll be announcing something in January about the completion of the project, so it’s all but done.
What’s driving the project, and the scope of the project — it’s a large construction project, it’s a prevailing wage project because it’s receiving state and local funding — is the TIF (tax increment financing) mechanism behind that. So people need to understand that part of the finance strategy is a result of the project itself. In other words, the taxes that are being generated because the project is there is what helps pay for the project. So it will be a great project, it will add over 1,000 new jobs to the community. It will be a product that we haven’t had here before, in terms of the scale and scope of it, and it will be a perfect complement to the six other hotels under construction and being planned in the community right now, and the expanded convention center.
The new convention center and Center City project should be completed about the same time. So that takes us to a whole other level — along with the other projects, and bourbonism coming together, and the convention center coming together — in terms of the number of visitors coming to our city, which of course is good for all of our businesses. And our food scene obviously is a real beneficiary of this.
IL: You obviously know the trouble the Yum! Center has had with its TIF. Is there any concern that this might run into the same problems with an underperforming TIF if the economy underperforms?
GF: Well, this is a much smaller TIF area and has a much smaller annual threshold than what the arena does. So as that comes out, I’m sure you’ll study that and you’ll see it’s a much lower risk profile behind it, and we can identify the revenue coming out of it. A lot more of it is directly related to the hotel and that small block area there as well. So there’s much less exposure on that, and the deal’s been negotiated that way. So obviously we’re looking at not just the downside, but then also the upside at the same time, which is quite significant.
IL: The Animal Services Ad Hoc Committee report said your administration made a false statement in saying it had done an investigation and cleared anyone in Metro Animal Services of any wrongdoing. Do you agree with that finding, and do you plan on following their recommendation to acknowledge there was a false statement made?
GF: The amount of time and attention spent on that whole area I think was — the attention should have been spent on what’s happened in Animal Services. The live release rate since we started in office has gone from the high 30s to the high 70s. So we’re now saving 4,000 animals a year — that didn’t happen four years ago. That’s the story of Metro Animal Services, and that’s the story that I’m going to continue to talk about.