Mayor Greg Fischer spoke to clients and staff of a nutrition site at the Kling Center on Friday. | Photo by Joe Sonka

Mayor Greg Fischer said at a news conference Friday that a majority of Metro Council was to blame for $35 million of budget cuts coming in the next fiscal year, the morning after the council voted to reject a tax increase that would have produced over $20 million in new revenue.

Metro Council rejected a proposed ordinance by an 11 to 15 vote Thursday night that would have raised the tax rate on most insurance premiums from 5 percent to 9.5 percent in the next fiscal year beginning July 1.

The ordinance was viewed as a compromise proposal mixing new tax revenue and budget cuts to cover the expected $35 million shortfall, whereas the mayor’s original plan would have only relied on raising the insurance premium tax by a significantly larger amount.

Speaking to reporters at one of the city’s senior nutrition sites administering the Meals on Wheels program, Fischer expanded on his statement issued after the vote Thursday night that he was “disappointed and saddened” by the 15 members who voted against new tax revenue — or as he called it, their “vote to cut very vital services in our community.”

Fischer is scheduled to present his budget proposal for the next fiscal year on April 25, and the Metro Council must pass a budget by its last meeting of the current fiscal year on June 25.

When Fischer first publicly warned about the extent of the budget shortfall on February 7 — saying that most of the projected $65 million shortfall was due to rapidly increasing annual pension payments mandated by Frankfort — he specified many of the potential “devastating” cuts and layoffs would have to take place throughout city government unless a new revenue source was identified.

With that effort to create new tax revenue having been officially rejected by Metro Council, Fischer warned Friday that those cuts are now on the way and council members “are going to see how difficult this is going to be, because each one of these numbers behind $35 million represents a firefighter, a police officer, a senior center, a library, an ambulance, and they’ll have to weigh the pros and cons of these things. So there’s a lot of very difficult decisions coming before us.”

Asked if his proposed budget would include the specific across-the-board cuts he first mentioned in February, the mayor said it would be similar “in broad strokes,” and though there might be some changes, no part of city government would be exempt.

The potential cuts first identified by Fischer included up to 317 layoffs of city employees in the next fiscal year alone, reducing the number of police officers in the city by 250 over the next four years, and the closure of several library branches, fire stations, health clinics, community centers, pools and golf courses.

When Fischer first warned of these potential cuts that would take place without a tax increase, Republican council members and a number of Democrats accused the mayor of blindsiding them, if not using those potential cuts as a bluff and scare tactic.

Many of the 15 members who voted against the tax ordinance on Thursday said that the city should first do everything it could to cut waste and inefficiencies in city government before raising taxes, though no members offered a specific proposal identifying where those $35 million of cuts should come next year.

Asked if the failed vote was an indictment of how he handled the issue, Fischer mentioned that “people were saying I was scaring people with what these cuts could be. I think my job is to tell the truth. The truth is scary behind something like this, and we’re about ready to see that as we put together the budget and it rolls out.”

Fischer took specific aim at the 15 council members who voted the ordinance down, saying that they “didn’t rise to the occasion to protect their constituents.”

“One of the ironies behind the people that voted against revenue is none of them produced a plan,” said Fischer. “This is what we kept waiting for. If you want to be a critic of the need for taxes to provide basic services, you have a responsibility as an elected official to present a responsible plan. None of them did.”

The mayor added that such council members didn’t “put personal faces” behind the cuts that will now have to come, as “it’s easy to say it’s a spreadsheet, cut this and cut that. I want people to come and talk to folks like this and say ‘your programs can be impacted.’ ”

After taking questions from reporters, Fischer spoke with clients and volunteers of the Kling Center, noting that the center typically gets $7,500 of its budget from the city, “so you’ll be impacted, but not to the extent that the senior center will close or anything. But there will be less.”

Fischer then added: “Make sure your Metro Council people know how they hurt you last night. That’s the bottom line.”

Asked if the cuts to come will affect the city’s Meals on Wheels program, the mayor said it typically gets 5 percent of its budget from the city, so it would have an impact.

The Meals on Wheels program is administered by the Office of Resilience and Community Services, a new city department that several Republican council members have discussed eliminating the funding for.

Stating that he believes the role of government is to help people in need, Fischer added that “last night a lot of our Metro Council people disagreed with that. So when you see them, or when you vote for them, let them know you remember that.”

Councilman Anthony Piagentini, R-19

In a newsletter emailed to his constituents Friday afternoon, Councilman Anthony Piagentini, R-19, an outspoken critic of the effort to raise taxes, celebrated the council’s bipartisan rejection of the proposed ordinance, with eight of the chamber’s 19 Democrats joining Republicans to vote against it.

“This clearly sent a message that the Metro Council, Democrats and Republicans alike, recognized the harmful effects that levying this tax against our constituents would have and we represented the will of the people,” wrote Piagentini.

Councilman Stuart Benson, R-20, also cheered the defeat of the tax hike in his newsletter Friday, writing that “we spent much of the past month dealing with fear tactics and threats by the Mayor as well as the dozens of public relations and department directors who were told that passing this tax was the mayor’s number one objective.” He also praised the “courageous” vote of new Democratic members against the ordinance.

To the surprise of some council members who supported the tax ordinance that was voted down, the CEO of Greater Louisville Inc. issued a statement after the vote lamenting its failure, saying that the local chamber “has consistently advocated for a balanced approach, centered on reductions to spending and limited tax increases.”

That statement baffled one council member who declined to be named, telling Insider Louisville that besides one Op-Ed advocating a balanced approach by CEO Kent Oyler in the Courier Journal in late February, the chamber “didn’t make any calls, they didn’t do anything to encourage support for the ordinance.”

“To endorse a compromise after it failed is irresponsible,” said the council member. “If you’re going to get involved in an issue, you can’t just sit on the sidelines and then after something bad happens say ‘they shouldn’t have done this.’ ”

Asked what he thought about GLI’s statement and if they did enough to help the compromise tax plan, Fischer told Insider that “GLI could have been a lot more active than what they were.”

Responding to that criticism, GLI spokesman Ed Green told Insider that the chamber “didn’t endorse a single plan because there were multiple plans proposed to the Metro Council,” again referring to Oyler Op-Ed in February.

Green said GLI “met with the people developing proposals to explain what is most important to our members,” but repeated that the chamber at no time endorsed passing a specific plan to raise taxes.

Fischer also noted that the business community would have to step up their support of important programs that may now have less financial support from the city.

“We’re going to need our people in the city and our businesses to step up in ways they haven’t before,” said Fischer. “There’s not going to be as much public money available to help many institutions that are worthy of help. So people who think there needs to be a smaller government, we need them to step up and be more charitable and help these types of organizations.”

This story has been updated.

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]