City-County Government Consolidation/Merger
[The author is a Louisville attorney who has practiced for 30 years, the first 6 ½ of those as Director of Intergovernmental Affairs and Special Counsel to then Jefferson County, Kentucky Executive (now US Senate Minority Leader) Mitch McConnell, and ever since in the private practice of land development law. In private practice, Mr. Bardenwerper has also served on the Executive Committee of the Louisville Area Chamber of Commerce, which campaigned for City-County merger, and as 2-term mayor of the Louisville Metro suburban City of Hurstbourne and on the Board of Directors of the Home Builders Association of Louisville, which mostly opposed merger. He has served on numerous local boards and commissions relating to local government processes, including the Jefferson County Attorney’s Local Government Merger Task Force, which, after the 2000 merger vote, was charged with bringing the two major jurisdictions’ separate sets of laws into a single set to guide the newly consolidated Louisville Metro Government commencing in 2003.] My family moved in one of the early waves of European immigration into both the Milwaukee and northern Wisconsin areas. I am the sixth generation to have lived in the Milwaukee area, and a seventh generation has followed. Although we reside in Louisville now, we maintain strong ties to the Milwaukee area and regularly stop to visit the graves of my father and his ancestors buried at the historic Forest Home Cemetery.
What I have to offer are some insights into the possible consolidation (i.e., “merger”) of the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County governments based on Louisville’s merger experience which took effect in 2003 following a successful 2000 merger vote. Four failed merger efforts over four decades of trying preceded that vote.The mergers of Louisville and Jefferson County governments had always been controversial for probably many of the same reasons that exist in Milwaukee and Milwaukee County. In addition to the political rivalries, both inter and intra-party, and entrenched interests of each of the major governments and many constituencies of the old City and County, there were also the worries of Jefferson County’s nearly 90 suburban “small cities”, such as the one (Hurstbourne) I served as mayor for nine years. Based on six Kentucky statutory classifications, each of those cities possessed (and still possesses) varying degrees of authority -- for example, the larger of those small cities, like mine, were statutorily empowered to develop their own (or adopt the Louisville-Jefferson County version of) a land development code, including the authority to make final zoning decisions. Some of the small cities had (and still have) their own police and public works departments; nearly all contracted (and still contract) privately for waste removal and garbage collection; and all had (and still have) the statutory authority to pass certain kinds of locally appropriate laws. Post merger, these small cities still exist as part of Metro Louisville and range in population from several hundred to several thousand. They have Mayor-Council or Mayor-Commission forms of government, with all their leaders elected, in each case, “small city”-wide.
Prior to City-County merger, the further incorporation of small cities and their growth through annexation was stymied by virtue of a state law recognizing a Louisville-Jefferson County “Compact.” This law essentially stopped the further incorporation or territorial growth of small cities and forced the City of Louisville and Jefferson County governments to stop “competing” with one another for new business growth, by way of a set formula for sharing local “occupational” (i.e., income) tax revenues. Merger doesn’t change that aspect of the small cities; they can’t grow and they can’t proliferate.
Until the 2003 merger, Louisville and Jefferson County had many duplicate departments and agencies that performed many of the same or similar functions -- for example, two police departments, two public works departments, two different housing and urban development agencies, two neighborhoods departments, two budget offices, two finance departments, two personnel departments, and so on, plus one Mayor for the City of Louisville, one County Executive for Jefferson County, a twelve–member Board of Aldermen for the City of Louisville and a four-member County Commission (called “Fiscal Court”, which included the County Executive). Only Louisville had fire and garbage collection departments, whereas County fire services were handled through a number of volunteer fire protection districts, and waste removal was contracted for privately, either by the 90 some small cities, by suburban neighborhood associations or by residents individually.Yet, over the years, Louisville and Jefferson County had managed to get together to merge a number of functions, including sewer and drainage services into the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD), transit service into the Transit Authority of River City (TARC), planning and design services into the Louisville-Jefferson County Planning Commission, purchasing services into a joint Purchasing Department, many health and human services into the Metro Board of Health, and many economic development activities through assorted public-private partnerships which went by various names at different times, presently Greater Louisville, Inc., also called “GLI”. In other instances, instead of agency mergers, some were simply divided up between one government or the other. For example, the City of Louisville ran the Louisville Zoo, Science and History Museum, and Louisville Water Company (an independent authority whose stock was always wholly owned by the City of Louisville), whereas Jefferson County ran the Departments of Corrections and Human Services. Many of these previously merged functions were also governed by local boards and commissions jointly appointed by the Mayor and County Executive (such as the Planning Commission, Board of Health, Crime Commission, MSD and TARC). In some instances, either the City or the County served as “fiscal agent”, while in other cases the agency (like MSD or TARC) managed its own financial affairs. Some of these agencies had, as they still have, separate taxing authority, such as TARC which has its own local “occupational” tax, and MSD which assesses various sewer and drainage fees, billed by the Louisville Water Company.
Nevertheless, against this somewhat complicated, yet always pretty well coordinated and functioning background of varied local government entities, there continued a never-ending drumbeat for complete City-County merger, pounded continuously by the Louisville <u>Courier-Journal</u> newspaper, and, depending on the time, by various interests, notably neighborhood “NIMBYs” and big business through the Louisville Area Chamber of Commerce (now called GLI) – unrelated groups with very different agendas but one common goal: merger.The NIMBY’s major reason for supporting merger was to move the County Fiscal Court’s four-member zoning decisions to final votes by a larger Metro Council comprised of representatives elected by many small districts instead of by the much smaller Fiscal Court elected county-wide. The larger the representative body elected by smaller constituencies, in the NIMBY’s view, the better the chance to stop new development, especially the suburban type which many termed as “sprawl.” The Courier-Journal shared this view, as its views of supposed sprawl were the subjects of many stories and editorials.
The Chamber’s (a.k.a. GLI’s) main support for merger can probably best be summarized by many of its big business members’ devotion to the concept of one CEO, just like many of their own companies. After all, in their views, how could any entity, business or government, function with dual CEOs?
In fact, at points in time, notably the last and finally successful, local government merger effort, the top “CEOs” of Louisville‘s and Jefferson County’s separate governments (i.e., the Mayor and County Executive) both favored merger. When finally accomplished, this resulted in former two-term Democrat County Executive Dave Armstrong, who had just been elected Louisville Mayor for one term, standing aside in the next election in favor of his Democrat predecessor as Louisville Mayor, Jerry Abramson, to be elected as the first Louisville Metro Mayor. The most recent Republican County Executive, Rebecca Jackson, chose to retire to the private sector, and, Mitch McConnell, my former boss (who managed for some period to transform Jefferson County and the entire Commonwealth of Kentucky into a Republican stronghold) had long since moved to the U.S. Senate. All of them came together (two Democrats and two Republicans, often at political odds with one another) to work hard to pass the 2000 merger vote.
Opposition to Louisville government merger never much changed over the 40 years that it was debated, attempted and always previously failed. The last effort, which, as noted, had strong political (both party) and big business support, was nevertheless generally opposed by constituencies that feared a loss of influence in a newly merged government.
The groups generally opposing merger included the local suburban volunteer fire districts (fearing replacement by the Louisville Fire Department); the City and County police departments (likewise fearing consolidation, which did immediately, and remarkably smoothly, happen); local builders and developers (fearing that future zoning would be much more difficult to achieve with a large Metro Council, elected by districts, than with the small Fiscal Court, elected county-wide, where it had always been said “that no Fiscal Court member ever lost an election because of a zoning vote”); the gay community (fearing that a newly merged government might repeal the City’s Louisville “Fairness Ordinance”); and pockets of suburban “blue collar” neighborhoods which felt no particular affinity for “downtown” or City politicians.
The African American community expressed similar concerns because of its significant influence on the old Louisville Board of Aldermen, including its prior elections of Aldermanic Presidents.
By 2000, because of big businesses support, merger proponents naturally had all the money to mount an effective media campaign. And with the Courier-Journal’s long support of merger, there was plenty of free advertising as well. Merger opponents, on the other hand, never “got their acts together” in a unified manner, naturally considering the diversity of interests (e.g., blacks, blue collar, builders, police and gays). So the 2000 vote for merger finally passed, although by a slim margin, leading to a final consolidation of local governments with elections for the new office-holders held in November 2002 and with the Metro Mayor and Metro Council sworn into office January 2003.
Mapping of the 26 Metro Council districts was one of the most complicated tasks of merger, directed by a University of Louisville demographer, whose mapping efforts naturally had to assure various constituencies that none would lose too much of the influence they previously enjoyed within one government or the other, especially within the old City of Louisville as represented on its Board of Aldermen. In fact, most of the previous sitting Aldermen ended up being “re-elected” from one of the new Metro Council districts.
So how has it all worked out and where does Louisville Metro go from here?
First, before merger, the old City of Louisville in area was 60 square miles; now Louisville Metro’s area is 386 square miles. Before merger, its population was 256,000; now Louisville Metro’s is close to 700,000. Before merger, its U. S. rank in city size was 67; now Louisville Metro’s is 17. Before merger, its median household income was just over $28,000; now Louisville Metro’s is close to $43,000. This surely helps elevate Louisville’s image as a large and relatively affluent city.
(Incidentally, if Milwaukee and Milwaukee County were merged, as Louisville and Jefferson County did, Milwaukee would similarly jump in US rank in city size from 23 to top 10 and nearly double in geographical area. It would outrank Louisville by 7 (10 vs 17) in population, but would still be smaller in geographical area than Louisville, although with a population density double Louisville’s. Milwaukee’s number of households and household units would be about 90,000 greater than Louisville’s. Median household income between the two cities would be about the same.)
Second, whereas the real metro market (which mostly includes three thriving Kentucky and three booming Southern Indiana counties) remains, in terms of population, barely within the top 50 nationally, it nevertheless is true that the political jurisdiction of Louisville Metro is one of the nation’s larger cities and that the new Mayor and Metro Council govern a population, geographical area and government institution of relatively significant size and scope. Although not a fast growing community, Louisville’s image as a big city has helped to attract, grow and retain big businesses (like the UPS World Air headquarters, fast food chains Yum Brands and Papa John’s, two Ford Motor Plants, GE’s Consumer Products Division and health insurer Humana), plus nationally recognized events like the Kentucky Derby, one Ryder Cup and two PGA championships and events of a moderately successful scale because of its international airport-located and additional downtown-located large convention facilities and new basketball and football arenas which enhance Louisville’s college sports town, top tier reputation.
Most importantly, merger has also helped Louisville to “speak with one voice”, which was one of the main arguments advanced for merger by the Mayor, County Executive and big business.
Third, property tax rates have remained the same for the “old city”, which continues to offer special urban services in exchange for the higher tax rate. While the economic recession has caused work furloughs and other budget cuts, budgetary savings through Executive Branch restructuring has equaled about $600,000 annually, and moving out of leased to government owned buildings has saved Metro government another estimated $2 million annually.
Fourth, there has been no diminution in civil rights or in influence of the African American community in Metro political affairs. In fact, the current Metro Council President is African American, and he just announced as a candidate for Metro Mayor, hoping to succeed current Mayor Jerry Abramson who, in turn, announced his decision to run for Lt. Governor, after nearly 20 years as “Mayor for life”, a moniker that a popular local “DJ” gave him, recognizing Abramson’s nearly 20 years in office as mayors of the old City of Louisville and recently of Louisville Metro.
Fifth, political races, Metro-wide, should be more competitive in the future. The old City of Louisville was previously virtually all Democrat. On the other hand, with McConnell’s 1976 election, Jefferson County was represented for nearly 12 years by Republican County Executives, and both Republicans and Democrats had been elected to three County Commissioner offices on Fiscal Court.
Sixth, despite concerns that consolidated local government would degenerate into a bunch of fiefdoms of Council District political bosses and parochial interests and decision-making, because each of the new Metro Council members would be elected by district, rather than city or county wide as before, the fact is that the Council has turned out to have a surprising community-wide focus.
Seventh, the concerns of some of the other constituencies, such as the suburban fire districts and small cities, that, surely as night followed day, City-County merger would usher in an effort to disband them, those concerns, too, have proved unfounded. The local volunteer fire districts remain independent, well funded, through their own distinct fire district taxing authorities, and professional, employing full-time firefighters much like the Louisville Fire Department. Similarly, the long standing authority and effectiveness of service delivery by the many small cities appears safe and likely to remain unchanged.
Eighth, of the nearly 90 small cities that existed, as stated all remain as cities, although functionally more or less as “special taxing districts.” They have retained all the authority they possessed before to tax and spend on purely locally based priorities (for example, they continue to offer their residents special services ranging from road resurfacing to front-door, twice a week garbage pick-up, to extra police patrols, to “signature” entrances and extra landscaping, to neighborhood festivals). The small cities also get to continue to call their local leaders “Mayor” (resulting in the oddity of a Louisville Metro Mayor and 90 small cities mayors, of which I was one, a distinction some explain by calling one the “Big Mayor” and the rest “little mayors”).
Ninth, planning and permitting are arguably more efficient because, except for continuing minor roles of a few of the “small cities”, one central place now exists for planning and development permitting, which is the new Metro Development Center, a building where most of the economic development and code related departments and agencies are based. Louisville Metro refers to this as “one-stop shop”.As director of intergovernmental affairs during the late ‘70s to early ‘80s administration of then County Executive (now U.S. Senate Minority leader) Mitch McConnell, my job was to coordinate the activities of Jefferson County’s many local governments, including the relationship of the old City and old County governments. An example of those efforts to coordinate various local government services, I directed the County’s side of negotiations leading to a 911 emergency phone system. In the early ‘80s, this was still a pretty new concept nationally. For years, the City of Louisville and Jefferson County Police Departments, Louisville Fire Department, the local small city police departments and volunteer fire districts, City EMS, County Sheriff, and Emergency Preparedness Agency kept meeting to try to negotiate a system that addressed each agency’s specific concerns, such as what radios to use, who would dispatch, how to hand off calls, who would make runs where, and so on. Meanwhile, the community suffered for years without 911.
One day, County Executive McConnell told me, “I’m tired of waiting, let’s just announce it.” So he held a press conference and did just that. The City of Louisville’s then Mayor went ballistic. In his mind, what authority did the County Executive have to tell the City of Louisville how to handle its emergency response. Truth is, the County Executive had none; only the bully pulpit. McConnell’s announcement may have been legally unsupportable and practically impolitic, but his unilateral action worked, forcing all the various emergency response agencies’ hands. In short order, they finally got together. But had we then been the one Louisville Metro community we are today, we could have implemented the 911 system years earlier. Incidentally, after merger, an enhanced 911 system quickly led to Louisville Metro Mayor Abramson’s creation of the Metrosafe Emergency Communications System, a $71 million single network to finally fully link police, fire, EMS and other first responders throughout the entire community in one radio system.
Despite many experiences like this, when the last vote came to merge City of Louisville and Jefferson County governments, I still opposed it, for a number of reasons cited above, mostly looking out for the interests of small cities, such as the one I then served as mayor, and of builder/development groups, which I represented then and still do as a private practicing lawyer. But now, six years into the “experiment” of merged local government, my judgment, and that of nearly everyone I know, is that it has worked remarkably well, and most major fears have proven wrong.
Merger of the old City of Louisville and Jefferson County governments has helped our community attain a higher level of recognition nationally, has helped to coordinate and improve the response of local government decision-making, and has allowed the greater community to concentrate its resources more cost-effectively where needed, while, interestingly enough, not diminishing any attention previously paid to particular portions of the larger community. It has eliminated intergovernmental rivalries which only presented Greater Louisville poorly in the eyes of the outside world.
(Of further note, the separated Louisville and Jefferson County public school systems merged in the mid-70s. Not without its initial controversies and continuing challenges, by most accounts it was a successful merger, leaving our consolidated Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS), of nearly 100,000 students, with an elevated national reputation among urban school districts. That, along with the local government consolidation described herein, has made Louisville a far better, more integrated, politically balanced and economically opportunistic community with a more promising future than it otherwise might be, as a once somewhat sleepy southern town with a checkered history of union strife and racial segregation.)
Even though I am now a Louisvillian, having spent 35 years of my adult life here, working in and with all levels of local government, I am still born and bred a Wisconsinite, with strong ties to the Milwaukee area. Indeed, my eldest son is considering attending Marquette University, among other reasons because he is interested in a top quality education in a vibrant urban area. And what I have shown my son and what I and 100 Louisville business leaders learned on a 2002 trip to Milwaukee led by our then Mayor Armstrong, Milwaukee, especially its downtown, has definitely impressed.
Despite this, most people I have visited with over the years, either casually about vacation spots or seriously about business, know nearly nothing about Milwaukee. When I describe Milwaukee (such as Lake Michigan which is like living on the ocean, without the tides, with its gorgeous waterfront parks, with its restaurant dotted active riverfront, with its charming old world architecture, with its vibrant arts scene and interesting neighborhoods, including nearby small cities, with its professional sports teams and top rated universities), people are hugely surprised. Milwaukee is a community of treasures not many outsiders know of, yet they should. I think that “problems” associated with a lack of unity and documented deterioration of the city relative to the larger country have held Milwaukee back.
In my view, knowing what I do both about the Milwaukee area and about the consolidation of local governments, as we accomplished in Louisville and that can be translated much the same way to Milwaukee and Milwaukee County, greater Milwaukee has much to continue to lose by not seriously considering the path that Louisville and Jefferson County voted to take. And in my view, although Milwaukee’s debates over merger will be similarly contentious, the issues also will be mostly the same as they were here. And thus, too, will the result be the same if Greater Milwaukee works toward and embraces local government consolidation, which will be a major driving force for a much greater Milwaukee future.
If I can give one thing back to the seven generations of Milwaukeeans from whom I come, it is this experience from another place which long fought the same fights and thereby struggled much the same ways that Milwaukee appears to do still today.