Mayor Greg Fischer

Mayor Greg Fischer sat down with Insider Louisville on Thursday for a year-end interview, during which he expressed optimism that the city is heading in the right direction despite an alarming all-time high in homicides this year.

Highlights of the conversation include Fischer’s thoughts on Louisville Metro Police Department’s strategy to combat violent crime, the financially troubled Yum! Center’s lease with UofL, the location of a proposed VA hospital, his legislative priorities in Frankfort, affordable housing, large construction projects underway, and whether he will run for re-election in 2018.

Insider Louisville: Was 2016 a good year for Louisville?

Mayor Greg Fischer: Yes. A city’s got to be able to celebrate everything that’s going on, but it’s also got to be clear eyed on what the challenges are. Clearly the biggest challenge we have is violent crime, homicides. If you were able to wave a magic wand and remove that from the situation, you’d say “wow, look at what’s taking place in the city.”

So from a big picture standpoint, $9 billion in capital construction, 23 new hotels, expanded convention center, all kinds of multifamily moving downtown helping downtown development, as well. So there’s a built environment that is at a pace where it’s never been in our city. Throw in the Ohio River Bridges Project, the completion of that. And when you take a look at talent development, we’ve gone from 38 percent of our adults with a college degree to 44.7 percent, so we’re now almost three points above the national average as it relates to adults with degrees, so that translates to an ability to compete in a global economy. Our unemployment rate is 3.9 percent, so we’re better than the national average with that. We created 60,000 jobs, our economic development strategy is working.

So there’s a lot saying that the city has got more momentum than it’s ever had before. But then you have this drip of violent crime that happens all too frequently that people are concerned about. And obviously nobody more so than myself, and this office and LMPD and the community as well. So you’ve got to be able to take a look at the big picture and say this city’s moving forward in a quite substantial way.

IL: You’ve said two-thirds of this year’s homicides were linked to the illegal drug trade. Would you say LMPD’s main strategy to reduce violent crime is essentially to lock up more people involved in that illegal drug trade?

GF: Did you say “lock up?” Well, I would use a word like disrupt. So what you saw in the most recent reorganization is an increase in the number of folks in the narcotics area, so we can better understand what’s happening and what the distribution chain looks like. Who’s playing at each level so we can in fact get those people off the street.

That’s part of it, but also there’s a community part to it. How do you try to get people to not go down a life of crime, as well? So you see programs like REimage and Right Turn, those are working, which is important. You see intervention programs like Pivot to Peace that are taking place as well. So you’ve got an enforcement part of the strategy, which certainly is what they do, but then we have a prevention part of it, a re-entry part of it as well. So it’s a multi-pronged issue. And then you’ve got the community part of it.

IL: You’ve also said there is a national crime epidemic — in the context of Louisville’s increase — and that three-fourths of cities our size have seen an increase in homicides. If you look at Cincinnati, their homicides are down 14 percent this year. Nashville’s have increased slightly. Indianapolis is at an all-time high, but it’s only a slight increase from last year. So why has Louisville seen such a dramatic increase, compared to those other large cities in the region?

GF: What you want to look at is homicides per 100,000 citizens to really understand who’s doing well, as opposed to year over year kinds of increases, so you can make comparisons between cities. Prior to this uptick that we’ve had, our homicide rate per 100,000 was around 10 to 11. Now it’s up into the 15 to 16 range. So you can say, is that good or bad? If there’s one homicide, there’s too many. If you take a look at St. Louis, I believe they’re at 45 homicides per 100,000. New Orleans is 40, drastically bigger numbers than what we have. And then there are cities where it’s six or seven, I think Salt Lake City is one of the lower ones. So we’re trying to understand what is different about those cities compared to (Louisville). The facts are that for more than the last 10 years or so, our homicide rate per 100,000 was in the best third tier, if you would, of the country. Now we’re around average to a little worse than that.

IL: Does it concern you that the FOP had a pretty overwhelming vote of no confidence for LMPD Chief Steve Conrad, and do you view that as a vote of no confidence in your administration and your law enforcement strategy?

GF: Unfortunately, most every police chief in every city has had a no-confidence vote at some point in time in their career. So it’s not something that’s shocking because it happens frequently around the country in many different police departments.

I can tell you that when you have change – and LMPD has had change with their reorganization – the thing about change is people say “we need it.” And we certainly needed to change something with our violent crime strategy. But then when it changes, people say “well, I don’t like that change!” So we have worked with FOP on 12-hour shifts, to get that passed in Frankfort, people seemed to like that. And now they need to give this restructuring some time to work. And we’ve got a good police force, as far as I’m concerned. FOP speaks for a part of the police force. The police officers I talk to say they just want to get their job done.

IL: What are your main legislative priorities in Frankfort in the next year?

GF: Well, it’s a short session. So we’ve got one more vacant and abandoned properties bill relating to land banking that we hope to get through. We have an issue with guns that we’re trying to get through, as it relates to felons that are committing a crime in possession of a gun, so that they can go away for a longer period of time. Right now that legislation is too lax in our view. We want violent criminals in jail and nonviolent criminals who shouldn’t be in jail out of jail, as well.

IL: What about LIFT (local option sales tax)?

GF: No. That will be part of the context with tax reform… With tax reform on the horizon that is an element – that should be an element – of that. So to try to do something in a short session with tax reform doesn’t make sense.

IL: House Democrats were very supportive of LIFT, making it HB 1 and passing it. With Republicans taking over the House do you think that’s pretty much dead, or do you think there’s still hope for the state legislature passing that?

GF: Well, again, I don’t think it’s going to be an individual issue. Rep. Jeff Hoover, who is now running the House, is a supporter of LIFT. The governor is a supporter of LIFT. So the bigger question is what’s going to happen with state tax reform. Obviously it’s going to change from what it is right now – if in fact it’s successful – but there needs to be some kind of change. Within that context, will cities and counties be able to vote on issues they believe are important. And I’d like to see it broaden beyond capital projects. For instance, if a city wants to vote on offering universal pre-K for our youngest citizens and we want to pay for it, people should be able to vote on issues like that. So I’m hoping when we get into tax reform, we have a broader view of what local control can look like.

IL: On state tax reform, would you like to see a move away from being income tax-based to consumption or sales tax-based? Because a lot of Republicans would like to move in that direction.

GF: Well that’s going to happen that way. So it really doesn’t matter what I believe. But what I do believe is that there should be Earned Income Tax Credits available to folks at the lowest income levels, so they don’t get dinged disproportionately by a consumption tax.

IL: Moving on to the the Yum! Center debt, have you spoken to (UofL Athletics Director) Tom Jurich and do you think that he will significantly alter their lease in a way that pleases you?

GF: I think there’s been much… for some reason this Yum! Center lease has been blown up into a bigger deal than it is. It’s not like an immediate crisis that is taking place in the next six months where this has got to be resolved. The Louisville Arena Authority is kind of the convener of folks that are putting the deal together. What needs to happen is there needs to be some kind of contemporaneous agreement on how this is going to be done between the state, the city and the university. And in talking to all of the parties and the arena authority, this should be done pretty easily. There’s a lot of ways forward for it.

We’re speaking through the area authority. I haven’t spoken to Tom directly about it, but I certainly have read what he said. But they will be a player, just like we will be, and I think we all appreciate the roles that we’re individually playing and we’ll be able to get this done.

IL: So how much do you think UofL needs to give up in revenue each year to go toward the arena authority for its debt payments? With the ordinance that Metro Council passed, it’s basically giving you the negotiating power to agree with a lease you think works well.

GF: I’ll tell you what I think the factors are. The first is the state will hopefully extend the life of the TIF to 30 years so we can mirror it with the bond financing. Then the city has had a minimum and a maximum over the life of it so far, so I imagine we’ll continue to play in that area. The university obviously has benefited from the Yum! Center, like the city has benefited from the Yum! Center, as well. They’ve expressed an openness to share what they want to do. And then you’ve got the other players like AEG and some of the vendors to the Yum! Center, to the extent that they’ve benefited beyond what they thought, they should be players as well. And there needs to be an indexing of — depending on what the performance is for the year — who pays what? So that’s a construct, and who needs to come in at exactly what levels will be something that will be worked out.

IL: On the location of the proposed VA hospital: For years you’ve been pretty neutral and stayed out of that. What changed your mind to issue that letter to the VA, which was pretty critical of the Brownsboro site? And has your office examined other potential sites for the VA, and are any in the West End?

GF: Well, I don’t think that’s the right characterization of my response. The VA completed their Environmental Impact Statement and then they asked for community input. That’s the way the process works. Just to kind of fire stuff off erratically doesn’t mean anything to the VA process. They have a very specific process they use. So I feel the role of the city is to respond to their call for a response with the facts as we know it. So we just put facts on the table, as it relates to traffic issues, as it relates to environmental issues…

IL: You had a lot of them.

GF: Well, they’re facts. It’s not a judgement, it’s just when an agency asks for feedback, you give them feedback based on what we know. That’s our job. And then they’re going to make the next decision. We also put in there if they want to look for other sites, we can provide assistance with that.

IL: So has your office been searching for potential sites, and do you think a West End site for the VA hospital would be good for the city?

GF: See, this is not like political jockeying. One, they don’t communicate broadly on what they’re doing. And two, they’ve got a formula for where veterans are. So they’re going to make what they think is a fact-based decision. So political persuasion is not something that works with the VA. So right now I think they have a binary thing: It’s either Brownsboro Road yes or no. If it’s no, then they are going to start looking at other locations. As you know, the size of the location is such that there’s not a lot of sites within Jefferson County that would be applicable to what their needs are. But there are several. So then they’ll overlay what their needs are if they get to that point based on where those sites are and see if they want to make those best decisions for them. And there are sites that would benefit the broader community, certainly more greatly than what they are at the Brownsboro site, which from my perspective is a real win. But I don’t think the VA takes that into consideration.

IL: Would you support amending Louisville’s Fair Labor Standards ordinance to require a higher percentage of local workers and local contractors to be hired on construction projects that receive significant economic incentives from the city?

GF: Well, you see some of that in our contracts already. So it depends on what the threshold is, what kind of project it is. But we want the maximum amount of local workers on our projects. We want to see the maximum amount of minority participation, as well as female participation and the disabled. So you see this, for instance, with the Russell program, you see that with Omni, etc. So you’re asking me a pretty broad question.

IL: Well, what’s the threshold that you think it should be?

GF: Well, I don’t have that. We have a threshold already. I don’t know what that is off the top of my mind. But the principle, I agree with you.

IL: Do you think the threshold should be higher than what it is right now?

GF: I don’t know. You’re hitting me kind of fresh with that, and I need to get up to speed on that. But the principle of more local involvement is a no brainer.

IL: The budget that you recommend to Metro Council in the coming year, will it have $10 million for the Louisville Affordable Housing Trust Fund?

GF: Clearly increasing the amount of affordable housing has been a priority of mine. You saw that with the CARES (receiving) $12 million in the budget before last, and this recent budget as well with the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. What’s important there – and I emphasized this with the affordable housing advocates, which I am one – is that they have got to build support on Metro Council, so that as high as we can take it, I will support it. But we’ve got to get the votes for it over there, as well. There’s no question there is a need for more affordable housing in the community. Unfortunately, once we got out of the recession… as soon as we got that kind of money available we started funding our budgets with it. So I hope that we can continue to increase it, but there’s a lot of factors there. What’s the revenue coming in, what’s our public safety needs? As usual, it’s a balance, but the council has got to be strongly behind it.

IL: Back to public safety: Do you think there is a retention problem with LMPD officers that needs to be addressed by the city?

GF: I don’t know what the exact data is on that right now. We’ve seen in the past couple of months some of our police officers going to Jeffersontown and a few of these smaller municipalities. But our police force is about 1,250 officers or so. The biggest issue we have is when people get to retirement age and they roll off either at 20 or beyond that. I’m sure you’ve been following what we’ve been doing in terms of bringing people back that have retired, I think it was 17 in this last class. In this next class that is coming up we have 11, so there will be more coming back. But that’s a way to get police officers quickly back on the street. They go through a two-week training, as opposed to the six months that recruits go through, and they can hit the streets quickly again. We’ve had plenty of people apply to be a police officer, as well, so that’s not a problem.

IL: Are you running for re-election in 2018?

GF: I have not made an official decision on that. But I can tell you there’s a lot of people thinking that’s a good idea for me to do. This has been a great way for me to spend a real important part of my life and it’s been a great honor. I’ll be making an official decision on that sometime in the first quarter.

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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]