by Gabe Bullard
When Mayor Jerry Abramson told reporters in West Virginia last year that before its merger with the county, the city of Louisville was getting “poorer, blacker and older,” it sparked some new debate about the consolidation of the two governments in 2003, and whether there have been any measurable benefits.
For the first segment of a two-part series, WFPL’s Gabe Bullard has been asking around about the benefits of and drawbacks of merger, seven years down the road.
“These are all the different plans…this was the first merger law,” says Steve Haag, as he flips through binders filled with papers.
In his office in City Hall, Haag has hundreds of documents and articles on city-county mergers: from Nashville’s 1963 consolidation to the failed merger attempts in Louisville in 1956, 82 and 83. Haag is the minority caucus director for the Metro Council, but before the council was formed he was one of the co-directors of the merger transition office.
Haag says before merger, even though there was cooperation between the city and county, joint operations were difficult.
“It was sometimes…I don’t want to say silly…but laughable in a bad way when we would bring in, say, an industry leader who was looking to bring jobs to Louisville,” he says. “They’d go across the street and talk to the mayor, then talk to the county judge.”
Haag says merger filled a major need by taking a single economic entity and making it a single governmental entity, thereby combining duties like zoning, development and business attraction.
“I would say it has to be better,” says Haag. “The fact is that when you look, for example, at projects that are going on…I’ll give you an example, Fern Creek Park…whether it’s that or the push for new suburban libraries or improved suburban libraries. Those are examples of places where it has been helpful. Again, it can always be better.”
“We find no significant benefits from merger,” says Dr. Hank Savitch.
Savitch and his colleague Dr. Ronald Vogel are University of Louisville professors. They’ve written extensively about merger and what they see as its relative lack of success. Savitch cites research that compares Louisville in the four years before merger and the four years after.
“Employment was flat, business establishments were flat, the downtown actually saw a real decrease in the number of business establishments, and employment, despite the claims of our city leaders…in fact the claims of our city leaders are fairly hollow with regard to merger,” says Savitch.
While acknowledging that it can’t be proven that merger prevented the city from improving, Savitch says his data indicates only that it didn’t enhance economic development the way it was supposed to, and that could be blamed on any number of factors…such as the business climate or government leadership.
One thing merger did was change how voters are represented on Louisville’s new legislative body.
The percentage of African-Americans serving on the Metro Council, for example, is lower than that of the old city Board of Alderman.
Former County Judge Executive Rebecca Jackson who was a vocal advocate for consolidation says quieting minority voices wasn’t a goal of merger, but it did achieve the goal of increased representation for county residents who were paying some taxes to the city before 2003.
“They could not vote for a single person who was going to decide how that money got spent,” she says. “And we’re talking real money and we’re talking about taxation without representation. It just didn’t work.”
Jackson says the council is also geographically balanced. Through their council representatives, residents of Fairdale have a say in city decisions and residents of west Louisville have influence on suburban matters, with discretionary funds given to every district.
If residents aren’t happy with merged government, Jackson believes it’s not the merger legislation’s fault.
“If you don’t like what’s happening, it is your responsibility to change it,” says Jackson.
And along with the mayor’s seat, half of the Metro Council districts are up for election this year.