Four members of the Louisville Metro Council debated the need for discretionary spending Wednesday, disagreeing along party lines on the funds use and whether they should be cut or significantly curtailed.
The Louisville Forum hosted the discussion, which featured Council President Jim King, D-10, and fellow members David James, D-6, Ken Fleming, R-7, and Jerry Miller, R-19, and was organized in response to the growing scrutiny of the council’s spending.
Each year, every city lawmaker is allotted $30,000 in office funds, $75,000 in Neighborhood Development Funds and $100,000 in Capitol Infrastructure Funds that they are allowed to transfer to their lower accounts.
King and James defended the spending practice as necessary for needy non-profit groups and unforeseen disasters in their areas, but both admitted there are flaws in the system that need to be addressed.
Still, cutting the funds as GOP members have suggested is unacceptable to council Democrats because it would give the mayor more authority over spending priorities.
“I believe that good government begins at the grassroots level and there is no one more familiar with the needs of a district that its council member. Eliminating the NDFs and CIFs would mean we’d have to make a case to the mayor for every little need we have. This is not only impractical, it’s nonsense,” he says. “Especially in those areas of town represented by Democrats that are typically less affluent and deteriorating.”
For weeks, the council has debated changes to spending policies due in large part to the ethics allegations made against Councilwoman Judy Green, D-1, who is accused of misusing funds in two separate charges.
The ethics commission is scheduled to hold its final deliberation on the first charge facing Green this Friday, but since then a number of other questionable purchases have been brought to light.
Fleming pointed out that other cities do not give lawmakers such hefty discretionary funds to spend and the council should adopt stricter guidelines to earn back the public’s trust.
“Frankly, I would prefer to eliminate NDFs. In fact, there has been initiatives from the Republican caucus at least to eliminate or reduce the amount of allocation. But given our voices are in the minority to eliminate these funds we are pushing for greater accountability, transparency and oversight of the processing, approving and monitoring of these accounts,” he says.
Republicans plan to propose a number of measures for consideration to reform the system, including cutting neighborhood funds by half, posting all discretionary expenditures online and stopping members from transferring money between their accounts.
The minority caucus is also seeking a clearer definition on the public purpose of the funds going to non-profit groups.
The mayor’s office has already recommended changes to how funds are given to non-profits and King has sought legal advice from the county attorney’s office to review gift card purchases after news outlets highlighted questionable expenditures.
As a freshman member of the council, James argued that the funds are often used to improve quality of life in the district. Recently, he spent $10,833 in extra overtime for police officers to focus on a “street blitz” aimed at reducing crime in the Old Louisville neighborhood.
“Metro Louisville is a diverse network of neighborhoods and while everything in our community might only be 15 minutes away that doesn’t mean all needs in the county are the same,” he says. “These funds serve as opportunities for government to make a memorable and lasting life change for the people in those communities.”
But critics have argued the funds are often used as a slush fund to support a member’s re-election efforts and favorable handouts to political supporters.
Public records showed, for instance, that Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton, D-5, spent $1,550 on gift cards over three years, some of which went to residents in a raffle contest who favored a controversial wet-dry vote in the district
Council Democrats have bristled at those allegations and believe GOP members are trying to “nickel and dime” Metro Government.
Those purchases are only meant to get residents involved with their neighborhood and are not hand out cash or buy votes, says Democratic caucus spokesman Tony Hyatt.
But Councilman Miller, who asked the mayor to cut the funds in half earlier this year to help fill the budget deficit, says the funds turn city lawmakers into 26 mini-mayors and the system is fundamentally flawed.
“If you were to build a government today from scratch would you create a system where the legislators had this much discretion on spending? I don’t think you would,” says Miller. “In fact the merger task force made a unanimous recommendation Metro Government not have them, yet here we have them.”
The full debate is below.