Mayor Greg Fischer delivered his 2019 state of the city address to a Rotary Club meeting at the Muhammad Ali Center on Thursday | Photo by Joe Sonka

Mayor Greg Fischer delivered the annual state of the city address Thursday to a Rotary Club audience at the Muhammad Ali Center, outlining goals for his third and final term.

Noting that the world-famous boxer and humanitarian was born on this day in 1942, Fischer made multiple references to Ali — along with several video clips of the champ — and called on the city to embrace his persona and spirit. In addition to showing compassion and leadership, the mayor added that this included a willingness “to brag about your city.”

Fischer did brag about Louisville’s accomplishments in recent years, repeating some of his familiar lines from last year’s mayoral campaign about economic development achievements and future projects that have been announced.

However, most of Fischer’s speech looked forward to his next four years in office, as he referenced his new 100-day action plan that includes meeting goals having to do with compassion, lifelong learning, equity, safety, health vibrancy and innovation.

Citing the need to embrace the city’s unique strengths to “keep pushing” toward greatness, the mayor once again cited the example of Ali. Noting that Memphis brings in 40,000 visitors for its “Elvis Week” each year, Fischer stated that “the I Am Ali Festival has the potential to be much bigger than that.”

In that same spirit, Fischer called for identifying and confronting the challenges the city faces, which includes Lean Into Louisville — a series of cultural events that will be unveiled Friday “to explore and confront and act on the history and legacy of all forms of discrimination and inequality in our city and country.”

Fischer then moved his focus to Frankfort and the legislation needed on the state level to help the city’s budget priorities and public safety.

Citing last year’s double murder at the Jeffersontown Kroger, the mayor called on the General Assembly to pass legislation strengthening the state’s hate crime law, in addition to allowing local governments like Louisville’s to pass gun laws to reduce violence.

Fischer noted that Louisville is prevented by state statutes from taking action on “common sense reforms” like universal background checks on gun purchases and allowing law enforcement to destroy guns that were committed in a crime, calling that “shameful.”

“Too many – especially elected officials – act like we’re helpless to prevent gun violence,” said Fischer. “Our country is never helpless. Frankfort and Washington can and must do more to keep our community safe and still respect the rights of law-abiding gun owners.”

Fischer also addressed the risings costs of the city’s public pension obligations for local workers, noting that Louisville’s payments will go up by $10 million this year, $20 million next year, $30 million the year after that, and are projected to be $50 million more within five years.

“This puts serious, serious pressure on our city budget,” said Fischer, adding that this could lead to vital services and public safety being cut in future years.

The mayor criticized Frankfort for only seeming to be focused on “changing the structure of the pension system,” but cited a recent report by the credit rating agency Fitch as proof that “it is the inadequate funding of pension that is the critical issue.” Fischer called on the legislature to remove “outdated restrictions” on how local governments could raise revenue, which he said should be part of the solution to the pension issue.

Fischer also cited his administration’s recent efforts to address the city’s homeless crisis, noting that a temporary storage facility for the personal items of the homeless is already in place, with the population of homeless individuals under the Jefferson Street underpass already decreasing.

The mayor also said his administration would continue to strengthen its partnership with the University of Louisville and push to dramatically increase the kinds of technology training it has touted with Code Louisville, which has over 1,200 people on its waiting list.

“Our goal is to increase by five times the number of people receiving technology workforce training in Louisville in the next four years. That’s an ambitious goal, but it is within our reach.”

Confidence in Bendapudi on the downtown hospital system

Despite what appears to be increasing uncertainty in recent months about the fate of Jewish Hospital as KentuckyOne Health seeks to sell the property, Fischer told the audience in a question and answer session that he is starting to have more confidence that there will be a good outcome — largely because of the leadership of the new University of Louisville President Neeli Bendapudi.

Referencing the recent questions over KentuckyOne assets, Fischer said: “I feel better about it today than I ever have over the last six months, let’s put it that way. It’s in strong capable hands with Neeli and her team.”

Asked after the event why he had such optimism now, Fischer told Insider Louisville that he didn’t have any specifics on negotiations with KentuckyOne, UofL and potential suitors, but noted that UofL’s leadership is now more stable “and I have a lot of regard for Neeli and I think she’ll figure it out.”

Fischer’s remarks came just hours after WDRB reported that a Nashville company may partner with UofL to operate Jewish Hospital. As Insider reported in December, the university has indicated to KentuckyOne that it is interested in purchasing Jewish Hospital along with an unnamed partner.

Council President David James told Insider that he and the council have been brought into the loop on some conversations about the future of Jewish Hospital, but said he was not ready to discuss what was said publicly.

Passport headquarters at 18th and Broadway in jeopardy

Asked by Insider about Passport Health Plan indicating that its much-praised plans to build a large headquarters at 18th and Broadway is now in doubt due to the state lowering Medicaid reimbursement rates, Fischer said his administration is monitoring that and “we’re really hopeful that it gets worked out.”

“Passport is working with the state to resolve that, and if they don’t, that’s a problem on multiple fronts,” said Fischer, who routinely cites the proposed development as part of the economic revitalization of west Louisville.

James stated flatly that the Passport project is now in jeopardy and called for the state to reverse course, adding that the change to reimbursement rates also affects local family health clinics and Emergency Medical Services.

“Frankfort is putting us in a really hard situation just to be able to protect our citizens,” said James. “If we lose that intentionally because we change that Medicaid reimbursement, I don’t know how we recover from that, and I’m not sure how Frankfort would think that’s a great idea.”

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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]