Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer | Photo by Joe Sonka

Mayor Greg Fischer sat down with Insider Louisville on Thursday for his annual year-end interview, hailing record levels of capital investments and new development projects as signs that the city is moving in the right direction.

IL also asked Mayor Fischer about the challenges that Louisville continues to face, as 2017 proved to be the second-consecutive year with over 100 homicides and another record-breaking year for fatal drug overdoses — along with an expected $38 million hole in next year’s budget due to the increased public pension costs.

Highlights of the conversation also include Fischer’s thoughts on the 2018 session of the Kentucky General Assembly, how to reform Kentucky’s troubled public pension system, LMPD Chief Steve Conrad and the Youth Explorer scandal, prison overcrowding and combating poverty.

Insider Louisville: Was 2017 a good year for Louisville?

Mayor Greg Fischer: Yeah, and when you take a look at the big picture, the city’s got record levels of investment going on. $12 billion of capital investment announced or taking place. Unemployment lower than 4 percent. Record educational attainment levels in terms of two- and four-year degrees. So, you know, the big picture is very solid. And I think we’re set up for a great 2018, in terms of openings around the city and continued investment. So that’s all on the really positive side. People can see that, and we haven’t had these kind of numbers in our history.

The numbers, too, are important that everybody is sort of sharing the wealth, so to speak. $800 million of the investment is going in West Louisville. The 18th and Broadway corridor will be reborn as one of the most important commercial nodes in the city, with the Passport headquarters on the west and the YMCA on the east, and then the first step of bus rapid transit system going up and down 18th and Broadway. The Russell neighborhood redo will be $250 million mixed-income mixed-use neighborhood, as well. The way we are and will be laying fiber throughout the city to make sure that everybody’s part of the digital inclusion plans, that they are positioned to succeed in the future. So there’s a lot of things to be pointed at to say that things have gone quite well.

IL: It was another violent year in Louisville. Homicides surpassed 100 again, though it looks like the total is going to be a little short of last year’s record. Do you think this is the new normal, that we’re going to see homicides over 100? Or is it going to at some point go back to the way it was four or five years ago, where we have 80 murders, 50 murders, something in that range?

GF: Well, it should not be the new normal. In all of our plans that are in place, it’s certainly designed so it’s not the new normal. As you said, this year will be behind last year. Cities around us are seeing record homicide levels. Thankfully, we’re not.

And there seems to be a correlation of this opioid epidemic with drugs, guns and gangs, as well. This past year was the first year that our federal task force was in place with the LMPD, and we started making arrests in that area. Our recognition of who the most violent criminals are, and where they are and what they’re doing on a daily basis is much improved, now that we have many more resources at that. The facts are that in most every city, it’s just a small number or a small percentage of people who commit the most violent crime. So it’s part of our people and places strategy, it’s knowing where they are and getting them off the street.

So we’ve got a good plan, that’s the six-point plan that you’re familiar with. And also, it talks not just about enforcement, but how can people help, as well. So I think people understand that coproduction of safety is everybody’s responsibility. So we’re making good progress. We can always do more and move faster in any category, but we’ve got a good team with LMPD, and a good federal team working on this issue.

IL: Is your support for LMPD Chief Steve Conrad still rock solid? And do you think that the city as a whole, most people, support him?

GF: Yes and yes.

IL: Through September, the Jefferson County Coroner’s office had logged 324 accidental drug overdose deaths, which matched the entire year of 2016. 87 percent of those are opioid overdoses. What is your strategy to reverse that trend, and is this something that we’re going to continue to see, record highs of overdose deaths every year?

GF: The opioid crisis is a real problem. The percentage increase this year is less than last year, if you’re looking for hopeful trends.

IL: In deaths?

GF: Yeah, I don’t think your numbers are right, there.

IL: That’s absolutely correct… The Jefferson County Coroner’s office. 324 overdose deaths just through September. All of last year was that number.

GF: Yeah. Well, why don’t we compare numbers… the percentage decrease… they’re all bad, OK? What I’m trying to say is, ’15 to ’16 was particularly difficult, I think it was about a 100 percent increase. Do you know?

IL: It was very large, it wasn’t 100.

GF: Well, we’ll get those numbers.

Chris Poynter (mayoral spokesman): That number seems high to me.

GF: Well, for the weekly report we get. So let’s make sure that you have the right number and our numbers match up.

IL: That’s from the Jefferson County Coroner’s office.

GF: All I’m saying is, let’s see our numbers that are reported and what our source is versus that, to make sure we got the right number.

[For clarification: Poynter later said that Fischer was referring to LMPD statistics for the number of suspected drug overdose cases that the department investigates, which is typically a total that is considerably lower than the coroner’s total of accidental fatal drug overdoses within the county. For example, LMPD investigated 214 cases last year, while the Jefferson County Coroner’s office logged 324 accidental overdose victims and the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy documented 364 total drug overdose deaths, including intentional ones.

According to the LMPD statistics, the number of suspected drug overdose deaths investigated by the department increased by 77 percent from 2015 to 2016. A LMPD report documenting such cases through Dec. 25 of this year shows 242 suspected overdose investigations, which is a 17.5 percent increase from the total at that point in 2016.]

IL: So do you think overdose deaths have actually gone down this year compared to last year?

GF: No, that’s not what I said. I talked about… and I’m not trying to put a happy face on this, man. I’m just trying to get you to make sure our data is aligned. And we can provide our data and our sources with your sources to make sure we’re talking about the same data.

When I’ve looked at overdoses this year for the data that I have, the percentage increase is much less than what it was year-over-year last year. So I look at that to say, is this thing getting under control, and what is control, and what’s taking place? So what I believe is that the much more ready use of Narcan is saving a lot of people. Now, that’s kind of after the fact, when somebody is already overdosing. You know the big challenge that we’re seeing is the fentanyl-laced heroin, carfentanil, and some really extreme situations, which obviously when people go from a pill to heroin it can have a much more deadly consequences associated with it.

And that’s what you’re seeing in this kind of evolution of this opioid crisis. The epicenter is Ohio, West Virginia is getting hammered, Eastern Kentucky is part of that. Then it starts getting smaller as you move outside of that circle. But it’s a real problem around this part of the country. So what we’re doing about it here, obviously, is our Office of Addiction Services and our Public Health and Wellness Department, and we started the needle exchange long before anybody else did. That’s helping in terms of referrals to people when they want to get off of their addiction. We opened the (Centerstone) Living Room over here so that people don’t just go to jail, that they can go to a place where they can stabilize. Our Enough is Enough program inside of the jail is helping people get off detox. Now the critical issue is when they leave the jail, they have what we call a warm handoff so that they can stay sober once they’re outside of the jail. Medicaid is really important, we sign people up inside of the jail so that they can have treatment once they get out.

So this is a real societal challenge. And we’re working toward obviously getting a turnaround in this situation. But it’s really complicated. I think people are more comfortable talking about addiction, talking about mental health issues in our community and elsewhere, I hope, so that people can look at this as a sickness that needs to be addressed, versus something that is just kind of hiding in the shadows that you wish was not there. So we’re definitely throwing a lot of resources at it.

IL: What are your priorities for Louisville in the upcoming session of the Kentucky General Assembly in Frankfort?

GF: Well, there’s a couple of big issues facing us. One, from a financial standpoint, is the pension increases. Absent any changes in Frankfort, they anticipate our commitment being another $38 million to pensions, which is going to be a challenge for the budget. We expect a revenue increase probably of $20 to $25 million, or so. So that would require cutting other services that are available here in the city.

First, I applaud Frankfort for taking on pension reform. That’s important. But I can tell you as a businessperson, when you have a holistic problem like pensions and you gotta take on pension reform, you have to address that with the tax reform at the same time so you know what your budget is going to look like. Absent any tax reform, this next budget – with the cuts that it’s going to make to social services, potentially to education – is sending all the wrong signals to the rest of the country and to the world in terms of what we know is important for the future of our commonwealth, which is continued strong investment in education. So, I know it’s difficult, but I hope Frankfort will take on tax reform when they take on pension reform, so we can understand kind of what this holistic solution is.

You can’t cut your way to success as a state. So we’ve got to be both responsible in terms of how government dollars are serviced, but we’ve got to make sure we have enough resources to do what needs to be done.

IL: Do you think the pension reform legislation should include separating CERS (County Employees Retirement System) and making that independent of KRS (Kentucky Retirement Systems)?

GF: Yeah, we would like to see us separated, in that our CERS is much better funded than KERS, so we can make investments that are much longer term than KERS, who has to have cash readily available for their payouts. In any event, what’s important is that the county system should have proportional representation on the board relative to the assets. I believe we are like 76 percent… so then that system should have majority representation, because it’s their assets that are being managed in there.

IL: Last year you and some council Democrats complained about a “War on Louisville,” that there were some bills that seemed to be targeting the city. There have already been a few bills filed, particularly around immigration. (One bill would cut Louisville off from all state funds due to limiting LMPD cooperation with ICE). Is this something that you fear is going to ramp up this year in Frankfort?

GF: What people know is that Louisville is the economic engine of the state. So what’s important to me is that any regulations that are put in place help us grow as a city. For every dollar we send to Frankfort, Louisville gets 50 cents back. So as the Louisville economy flourishes, it helps the whole state. But I can tell you, people do not like the micromanaging of Louisville by Frankfort. They see us as a growing city and I think the less we’re controlled by Frankfort, the more we’ll grow. That’s good for the whole state.

IL: Are you concerned that they’re going to try to cut off the flow of money coming back into Louisville?

GF: Well, that’s already the case. I mean, 50 cents on every dollar goes elsewhere throughout the state.

IL: Are you concerned that they might try to ramp that up even more?

GF: Our state support as a percentage of our overall budget is not large, when you take a look at our income resources being from our occupational taxes and our property tax. It would be a real shame if that were to take place. You know, what I think should be put in place is more situations where, again, our city can grow more.

IL: You mentioned that $38 million hole because of pensions in the upcoming city budget. What services or departments do you think will probably need to be cut, and what services and departments do you think are just off limits and cannot be cut any further?

GF: It’s too early for me to comment on that. We’re prioritizing all that right now, we’re in the budgeting process. But everything is on the table. It has to be when you take up… when you have something of that size. What I anticipate and hope is that when you talk to KLC (Kentucky League of Cities) and KACo (Kentucky Association of Counties) and many other cities and counties in the state, is they’re hoping that there will be more of a phased-in approach toward pension reform. And again, I believe it should be done with tax reform, so that we have a look at the whole system, if you will, both revenue and expenses. That’s what any businessperson would do and I think the state should be run that way also.

IL: So as of yet there are no sacred cows or things that absolutely cannot be cut?

GF: It’s too early to comment on the budget.

IL: Should the people of Louisville be concerned at all about how your administration has handled the LMPD Youth Explorer scandal from the beginning, or the LMPD leadership?

GF: I think what the people of Louisville should expect is when an issue becomes known, that it’s addressed quickly and effectively. In the Explorer issue, of course those are horrific allegations with that.

As soon as I was aware of the severity of the situation, we put our own internal investigation in place by a former U.S. attorney. The FBI has an investigation in place that we’re fully cooperating with, and then the police have one as well. So I think the other thing that people should expect is that there’s accountability. So that when anything is discovered in this case that was done improperly, people — no matter what level they’re at — will be held accountable.

IL: The prison overcrowding problem has not gone away. What’s the strategy to fix that going into 2018?

GF: Well, the primary part of the strategy is the state needs to be taking their inmates when they’re supposed to be taking their inmates. That’s been one of the primary contributors to overcrowding being a significant problem this year. So that’s part of it. The other part of it is, you know, the sentences that the judges put down on folks when they’re accused of crimes. So that’s something I cannot control. And then, obviously, what we’d like to see is that nonviolent offenders are not put into jail, so that it can be managed at the appropriate level.

IL: How would you describe your strategy to combat poverty in Louisville?

GF: The No. 1 issue, I think, facing the country right now — it’s the same here in our city — is making sure that everybody feels like they are participating in this macro, large economic success, that success is taking place. So the committed long-term solution to poverty is addressing the gaps in educational achievement. So the Cradle to Career and Louisville Promise initiatives are all about shrinking those gaps. The numbers are very clear: If you get a degree or a certificate beyond high school, you will be able to have a living wage. If you don’t, you’ll be living in poverty. So I’m sure you followed the work that we’ve done in this area over the past seven years. It’s amongst the best in the country, in terms of pulling that system together. But that message is very clear on how you break that cycle.

For folks that are not in that part of the cycle, it’s what kind of training that you can get. How do you position yourself to make a living wage. We’ve had success in the construction trades, in particular, here in the last several years as we’ve seen the construction taking place in the city. Our efforts at technology training through Code Louisville have also been nationally recognized, where people are training themselves to be coders and getting positions in that area. So there’s unprecedented levels of training available in the city, everything from construction to technology to the manufacturing training that’s going on through KentuckianaWorks. So it’s an education solution and it’s a workforce training solution, as well.

IL: Do you think it’s worked?

GF: Yeah. When you take a look at the data, the median wage has changed its downward trajectory for multiple decades and now it’s on its way up. So the data shows us it’s working.

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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]