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What Would Merging Mean?: The Louisville Model

Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 8:37 AM

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This week on WCPN and on WVIZ's ideas program, we've raised questions about the status of regional cooperation. One somewhat radical approach that is talked about occasionally is the merger of local governments and public services. You can learn more during an hour-long discussion about it, tonight at 8:00 on WVIZ. To set the stage, ideastream's Rick Jackson reports on another city that took the plunge toward merger: Louisville, Kentucky.

Among the main rationales for merger in Louisville and almost anywhere is that it will lead to more efficient government and save money. The mayor of the Louisville says the merger of the city and county there accomplished the former but not necessarily the latter.

Jerry Abramson: I was like Noah on the first day. Two finance directors, two this, two that.

Mayor Jerry Abramson says he was able to make a big dent in all that duplication of effort, eliminating almost 800 government jobs—about 12 percent of the combined city-county workforce.  Still, he acknowledges the merger didn’t really save the taxpayers money.  However, he argues that it did allow the level and quality of services to continue in Louisville at a time when other cities from Boston to Seattle were cutting funding for police, libraries and other services.

The big payoff from merger though, according to the mayor, is that the city and county now speak with one voice.

Jerry Abramson: Economic development is run right here; housing for the community is run right here; opportunities for airport and roads are done right here; snow removal is run right here. All of the big issues—the waterfront, the festivals—all of those are done right here.

Before merger government was divided and with the city and county sometimes moving in different directions.  Again, according to Louisville’s mayor, the change to a combined government has made it easier to attract new businesses because now they only have to deal with one entity. But it has come at a price and some Louisvillians paid more dearly than others.

Darryl Owens: You take a city that has the greatest concentration of African Americans, and you dissolve it. That’s the impact.

That’s former county commissioner and now State Representative Darryl Owens who complains that merger diluted African-American political clout.  No one disputes that.  In the pre-merged city of Louisville blacks comprised 30 percent of the population; in the new Louisville which takes in the whole county they make up only 19 percent.  Little wonder then that their representation in metropolitan government has decreased considerably since merger took place in 2003.

Undoubtedly, white suburban voters would be complaining too about merger if they had lost power.  Arguably, white suburban power was diminished in the new mix with urban voters but they still had a majority of the vote, and to get merger passed backers of the proposal made a big compromise to get suburbanites on board.  They allowed the 80 towns within the county to keep their independence to some extent.  A few of the towns still have their own mayors, city councils, their own police and fire departments. 

Riggs Lewis who ran the campaign to adopt merger concedes that it is what some call “merger lite” but he says that was a political necessity.

Riggs Lewis: All we did in our merger was merge our chief executive, our county judge executive, and our mayor, as one chief exec under merger, and we took two legislatives bodies, our county council and our city aldermen, and we made them one legislative body, with 26 members.

Some merger critics also take issue with the rosy economic picture painted by the mayor.  Hank Savitch, an expert in urban affairs at the University of Louisville, says the hard evidence of economic gain directly related to merger just isn’t there.

Hank Savitch: From what we determined, in terms of economic development, there’s been no shift in economic development, no positive outcomes from it and budgets have remained about the same.

So, whether merger—Louisville style or in some other rendition—would improve economic development, maintain government services or save taxpayers money here…is an open question.  But the Louisville experience may provide some key lessons as leaders from Cleveland and Cuyahoga County continue their search for greater regional cooperation.

Rick Jackson, 90.3.

Additional Information

More in our What Would Merging Mean? series

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Government/Politics, Miscellaneous, Regional Economy/Business - News

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