For just over an hour Thursday, members of Louisville Metro Council took Waterfront Development Corp. president David Karem to task on the decision to charge for parking at Waterfront Park.
“We have to figure out some other way other than charging these fees and taxes,” said Councilwoman Mary Woolridge, D-3.
The Waterfront Development Corp. board, which oversees the park and employees, including Karem, voted 6 to 3 on Aug. 23 to charge $3 for three hours of parking in a Waterfront Park lot. The fee would bring in an estimated $215,000 in revenue for the park, which would help cover a budget shortfall that the park is facing this fiscal year as a result of a loss of state funding.
Karem spoke before the council’s budget committee after Oliver Barber, a member of the WDC board, sent a letter to Councilman Bill Hollander, D-9, asking that the council take funding out of an account set up to pay for the expansion of Waterfront Park into West Louisville. The expansion is seen as one way the city is trying to bridge the divide between the predominantly black West End and the majority white neighborhoods east of downtown.
“I agree that charging for parking is the wrong decision. This is the most diverse place in Louisville, and it’s been very successful, and we need to keep it that way,” Hollander said.
But he called the request to pull more money out of the Waterfront Park expansion fund “completely unacceptable.”
“Eventually, that money will be needed, won’t it?” Hollander said. “In my view, it’s not the right way to go.”
Metro Council recently agreed to pull $210,000 out that fund at the behest of Mayor Greg Fischer to cover WDC’s budget shortfall last fiscal year. At least a couple of council members have said they believed it would stave off the idea of instituting a parking fee until at least 2018.
“I really feel kind of blindsided by this,” said Councilwoman Cindi Fowler, D-14.
As well as noting that the deficit came as a result of the governor vetoing $420,000 in funding for the park in his last budget, Karem pointed the finger at Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government. The city funds 72 percent of Metro Parks’ budget but only 40 percent of Waterfront Park’s budget, he said, and city funding for Waterfront Park dropped to about $975,000 annually from roughly $1.25 million.
“The problem that I constantly have that no one has ever explained to me is — We are 100 percent public park. Everybody agrees that this park has been a huge economic engine for the community. We wrestle with ‘Why does metro government feel like 40 percent of our operating revenue is legitimate, while Metro Parks gets 72 percent?’” Karem said.
When the park was originally built, the city agreed to fund two-thirds of the park’s budget, with the state covering the other one-third. If the city funding made up 66 percent of the WDC budget, Karem said, there would not be this budget deficit.
A few council members questioned why WDC leaders did not lobby for more funding when Louisville Metro Council was considering this fiscal year’s budget.
“The bottom line is you all came before this budget committee; we asked you all what you needed,” Woolridge said.
Fowler stated that had WDC representatives communicated the budget problems the park was facing, she would have fought harder to find additional funding when compiling the budget.
Hollander asked why WDC is not tapping into a $13.6 million foundation fund for Waterfront Park to cover the budget shortfall at least in the short term while park representatives lobby for funding from the state.
“We have a rainy day fund that we don’t like to use, but occasionally, there are rainy days, and it seems to me when the governor vetoes a $420,000 appropriation, it’s a rainy day,” he said.
The foundation funds are used specifically for capital improvements, Karem replied, and the foundation board has set a precedent not to use them for anything else.
“The foundation is there to repair things where there is no other funding to make it happen,” he said.
Councilwoman Barbara Sexton Smith, D-4, noted that multiple people have reached out to her hoping to help prevent the paid parking fees from taking effect, and she suggested that WDC look at hosting a fundraising campaign in an effort to cover the shortfall.
“I believe this community will step up to the plate,” she said.