Progress, blueprint, vision …?

May 30, 2006 at 8:56 pm

Mayor’s proposed budget is out, and so is the jury on whether it’s anything new

The annual Metro budget road show began anew last Thursday with the issuance of Mayor Jerry Abramson’s proposed budget to the public and the Metro Council. As is custom, the mayor rolled it out over a three-day period, dropping some of its largest attributes — a massive plan to rehabilitate firehouses and buy 17 trucks, a proposal that would raise money for a new animal shelter and plans to fund a “Waterfront Park Southwest” — on the media and citizenry to whip up some real anticipation.

Seated at the head of a long oak table in a room on the fourth floor of Metro Hall was Abramson, dressed in a dark pinstriped suit and flanked by two staffers. Along each side were various members of the TV media and another print reporter. It was two hours before the mayor would address the Council with a 38-minute budget declaration that relied heavily on words like Progress, Blueprint and Vision. These are words that sound great at what councilman Kelly Downard calls pep rallies, rousing and energetic speeches that build hopes — but often little more. Delivering a budget address at the top of open politics season is a sure way to elicit criticism.

The pre-address briefing is something of a new tradition, where Abramson and some policy geeks convene media to explain the budget before its release, and to answer any pressing questions we may have after looking at columns of numbers for about five minutes. It’s an exercise meant to clarify the message coming from the mayor’s office, and a particularly useful thing when dealing with number-crunching and reporters.

Rather than deal directly with the budget, Abramson stuck principally to the highlights sheet included in the media packets, a tried-and-true strategy of disseminating information you’d like to see on the nightly news. He characterized this as a continuation budget, meaning essentially more of the same, with only a few deviations.

 As Metro Council president Kevin Kramer, a Republican known for bipartisanship, would say in an interview a few days later, the unbridled optimism that Abramson showed in his budget address seemed a little out of step with the realities of walking down the same path.

Abramson’s proposed budget has every outward sign of a good one, which is about the only place everyone can agree. It capitalizes on increased city revenue, particularly from the city-owned Louisville Water Co., spending a total of $731 million without raising taxes or cutting services.

Since merger in 2003, Abramson has been able to eliminate a large number of vacant-but-funded city government jobs. This budget drops 34 more, bringing the grand total to 738.

More than half of the operational budget goes to police, fire and EMS services. MetroSafe will get $12.4 million in capital funds for the new communications system the mayor has been promising for the last few years, the third phase of a massive overhaul of Louisville’s emergency service system. Also, the much-publicized firehouse rehabilitation plan gets $17.5 million to rebuild three aging firehouses, as well as the purchase of 17 new trucks to help modernize an aging fleet. Abramson has said he hopes this will be done by 2009.

The Louisville Metro Police Department gets the lion’s share of the three, with $129.7 million, roughly $4 million more than last year. The money will fund hiring and training of 50 new officers, the mayor said. In addition, the money will pay for an upgrade and expansion of the LMPD’s firearms training facility, as well as a continuing program to replace faulty bulletproof vests. The budget also offers $100,000 in capital project funds for a somewhat controversial surveillance system that would place cameras in high-crime areas of the city.

There are several points where Abramson’s proposed budget seems particularly progressive. First, it ups the living wage to $11 an hour for full-time, non-union city workers. That garnered heavy applause during Abramson’s address to the Council last week, not only from Council members but the gallery, which was packed so full that about 20 people had to be turned away to watch the thing on closed-circuit TV in a nearby room.

Louisville is one of 130 American cities with a living wage ordinance, according to the Living Wage Resource Center, based in Brooklyn. However, there has been considerable reservation since merger, both about implementing and expanding the range of the ordinance.

Second, the budget would continue Abramson’s widely publicized push for a “City of Parks,” plunging $5 million into the ongoing drive to make the city greener and more bicycle-friendly. In addition, $250,000 goes to develop a plan for Riverview Park, or “Waterfront Park Southwest,” which will be governed by the Waterfront Development Corp., which is also responsible for funding the park.

The city’s parks system is perhaps the most visible footprint of the Abramson administration, with 123 parks over some 14,000 acres.

Public libraries will also get a boost. The proposal gives $2.2 million to buy land for three new libraries in suburban areas, although there is no money provided to fund construction. Also, $3.5 million will go to buying new books and other materials.

The harsh addendum to any discussion about city budgets that are meant to promote actual progress is inevitably diminished federal dollars, and Louisville is no exception. On the short list of lost federal dollars are grants to put police officers in public schools, for a domestic violence victim advocacy program, and for an initiative to help aimless young adults finish high school and college. Abramson’s budget still puts money into the programs, but the number-crunchers must be increasingly more creative about such spending.

The federal government has continued plundering Community Development Block Grants, which help cities build affordable housing for low-income residents. This year’s federal booty is down another $4 million or so to $11 million, although there is still $2.4 million in the budget for the Liberty Green mixed-income housing project, which supplanted Clarksdale.

That said, Louisville seems to still be on strong fiduciary ground. Paul Coomes, an economics professor at U of L who played an advisory role in shaping this budget, said the revenue forecast is solid.

Moreover, the city is trying something new: It will borrow $20 million a year for the next five years to fund capital projects (many of which include infrastructure maintenance and repair), rather than paying for such projects with the excess from the operational budget. Abramson said the initiative would not affect Louisville’s credit rating, which is AA+, the second-highest rating possible.

Council president Kramer offered reserved praise for the initiative, which Coomes called a positive step for the city.

“Borrowing money for capital things is a very normal, sensible thing to do,” as opposed to taking loans for “consumable” things, he said. Just as you may reasonably take out a car loan, but you wouldn’t want to buy groceries at 6-percent interest.

“Historically, our city-county government has been run in a very conservative way,” Coomes said.

The Metro Council will hold budget hearings for the next month, with the first tonight, to determine the final city budget. Democratic caucus chair Jim King said he doesn’t expect deep conflict. Unsurprisingly, Abramson’s budget proposal is kind to the Dems: the majority caucus submitted its $3.6 million budget agenda to Abramson on May 10, and King said he’s pleased.

“I think that the mayor’s budget tracked pretty consistently with our priorities,” he said.

For the first time this year, the Republican and Democratic caucuses submitted a jointly-prepared “wish list” to Abramson, although preliminary indications — according to a list shared with LEO by the Republican caucus — were that the mayor’s proposal didn’t line up particularly well with the wish list.

Kramer said he’s happy with the sound of the budget, but concerned about the pace at which Abramson’s administration has implemented funded initiatives in the past — getting more police on the streets, for instance, has been an arduous process.

“It’s hard to be optimistic, it’s hard to be excited about a budget that’s going to keep us moving at the pace we’re moving,” he said.

Downard, the 16th District representative, is Abramson’s opponent in the November mayoral race. Like any respectable candidate, he’s going to fire at his adversary when he can. On major capital projects in Louisville that carry formidable political weight, such as the downtown arena and the Ohio River Bridges Project, Downard has yet to distance himself from the mayor in any significant way. He appeared to have gained some political ground with his support of firehouse revitalization (a study commissioned by the city recommended closure, which Downard staunchly opposed) until Abramson’s budget proposal was released, and he has since accused the mayor of political motivations for funding the firehouse rehab efforts.

Downard’s major beef, however, is that Abramson is a bit too pie-in-the-sky. It is not a rare criticism.
“I was most impressed by the fact that I wasn’t impressed,” Downard said last Friday during a phone interview from his campaign headquarters. “This budget is a continuation of what we’ve had every year. It’s the same old trick of promising things in the future.

“We’ve perfected, almost to an art form, ribbon cuttings and press conferences and pep rallies.”

Downard said that despite providing funding increases, Abramson’s administration has failed to implement the new EMS communications system in a timely fashion (the combination of city and county units was a result of merger), and has not seen through a meaningful increase in police on the streets.

“I am fully in favor of most of the things the mayor talked about ,” Downard said. “I would be much more in favor of them if I thought they were going to happen as expeditiously as they could.”
Chad Carlton, a spokesperson for the mayor, responded to those criticisms:

“The mayor has worked hard to deliver on the promises of merger, and he’s done that by streamlining the government, he’s done that by pulling the police department into one single unit, he’s done that by creating a separate EMS agency and adding 40-plus officers and 20-plus ambulances to the streets, he’s done that by acquiring land for new parks. Maybe Councilman Downard hasn’t been paying attention to the deeds we’ve been doing, he’s only been focusing on the words. He needs to see the evidence of the investment that not only the mayor but the rest of the MC has made over the last three years.”

’Tis the season, indeed.