Nigh Times: Mayor Abramson unveils a thin budget proposal. So, how well off are we?

The Metro Council’s budget committee today begins a month of hearings on Mayor Jerry Abramson’s proposed budget, an underfed $812 million animal he introduced to the council Thursday in a down-tempo speech laced with reminders of the cash-flow scarcity. 

Abramson, normally the city’s ultimate cheerleader, resolved to a muted tone for the second straight year, citing high gas prices (every penny of increase costs Metro $30,000), cuts to social services in this year’s state budget, and the lagging economic fortunes of Ford and GE, two of Louisville’s largest employers, as cause for alarm amid the city’s effort to keep major projects — Museum Plaza, the downtown arena, library expansion — from being cannibalized. Revenue this year fell considerably short of its projection, and the forecast for next year is bleak: 2.9 percent, about half of normal growth, and the lowest projected increase in five years. 

“Our challenge, in lean times, is to keep positive momentum going while we continue to provide a solid basic service delivery,” Abramson told the council and a chambers packed with city workers. 

Regarding major projects, that momentum is largely directed downtown. The city would pay $17.6 million to acquire the rest of the privately owned land on the so-called Old Water Company site, so that it may use it to attract the Cordish Company — owner of Fourth Street Live! — to turn its downtown entertainment district into more of an empire. Last year, Metro budgeted $47 million for the Museum Plaza project in West downtown; that project is currently delayed. 

About 54 percent of the mayor’s budget would go to Metro Police and public protection, including a $4 million chunk to modernize the Ashland Avenue firehouse, funding for 30 new firefighters and $2.8 million for new fire-and-rescue vehicles. Police would be able to hire 100 new officers, and another $1.5 million would go into new body armor and computers for cruisers. Also, the city would invest $15.9 million in Phase III of the modernization of MetroSafe, the emergency management agency. 

The second-largest chunk, roughly 10 percent, is allocated for public works projects. That includes $5 million for road, sidewalk and signal upgrades. 

Spending on health programs, parks and social service programs is down somewhat from last year. The budget also eliminates 400 vacant government jobs, bringing total post-merger government shrinkage to 1,100 fewer jobs — a 12 percent decrease. 

“Cutbacks are going all over,” Cheri Bryant Hamilton, D-5 and budget committee chairwoman, said Monday. “We’re just going to be very — I guess we’re going to be scrupulous, try to make sure there’s not money hiding under a rock somewhere, which we don’t expect. We just need to make sure to cover the basic services, and a little more if we can.” 

The committee was expected to hear from the public first — a new thing — on Wednesday morning. If everything goes as planned, the full council would vote on the budget June 26. 

Another outward sign of a lean budget year is a slim roster of neighborhood projects. 

Each year, the council sends to Abramson a bipartisan list of micro projects, such as general improvements to a park. It is the mayor’s discretion which to choose, and he generally proposes that projects are funded using both general fund dollars and money from the member’s neighborhood development fund. 

The mayor’s budget would invest just over $1 million in such projects as the Buechel Park Master Plan Implementation, the St. George Community Center and Camp Taylor Park Improvements, to name a few. 

However, according to an analysis by Kelly Downard, R-16, projects in Democratic districts were heavily favored over those in Republican areas. Excluding broader community projects, council Democrats requested $2.9 million for 47 projects, and received funding for 21 of those; most, if not all, Democrats who requested such funding received it. Republicans, however, were not granted nearly as many: Of the 11 on the council, only two received funding for projects in their districts. They would get a meager $50,000 to the Democrats’ $600,000. 

“It is more drastic than I remember,” Downard said of the split, adding that the mayor, a Democrat, has typically weighted budgets toward Democrats. “I guess there’s politics involved, but I’ve never made that accusation — until this year.” 

Carlton said politics aren’t involved in those decisions. 

“There were a number of projects that the council as a whole — a letter that came from the council that at least purported to have bipartisan framework,” he said. “The mayor reviewed those and tried to hit as many of those as possible. There wasn’t very much money for those types of projects, period.” 

Downard said a lean budget like this shows that the mayor’s priorities lie with downtown, leaving outlying neighborhoods and districts like his at an economic disadvantage. Carlton disagreed, saying funds for projects like Center City are “catalytic investments” that give the city considerable economic leverage for the future. 

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