What might the Merger 2.0 task force mean for the Bon Air Neighborhood?

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On January 6, 2011, Mayor Fischer created by executive order the “Merger 2.0 task force.” This diverse, bipartisan group of individuals will study the various issues and will make comments. This measure appears to be more of an impact than outcome evaluation of merger.

In line with my focus on the Bon Air Neighborhood, I wonder what could it mean for my neighborhood and for Louisville? In reality, I can only make a number of educated guesses, but then I have other thoughts that the other blogs don’t.

For me, evaluating how merger has done in Louisville means reviewing what happened in Louisville, and what happened in those other metropolitan areas that drank the “kool aid.” So, a warning is in order, this post will be long as I almost did my dissertation about merger.

For those of you who easily get tired of reading, I will give a punch line first; I think nothing will happen with solid waste management, but something will happen with fire protection, including the fire station on Hikes Lane being closed down. At the end I also make a recommendation about coterminous economic development districts.

A brief academic review of merger or “Metropolitan Consolidation”

Louisville and Jefferson County became a consolidated city in 2003 after a successful referendum. Documents in the University of Louisville Archives suggest the Louisville Area Development Association was advocating city-county merger in the 1940’s, so it has been a long time in the making.

Louisville became the fourth large city in the region to consolidate. Other mergers in the region have been Nashville-Davidson County TN (1962), Indianapolis-Marion County IN (1970), and Lexington-Fayette County (1974).

Other U.S. metropolitan consolidations are:
Baton Rouge-East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana (1949)
Jacksonville-Duval County, Florida (1968)
San Francisco-San Francisco County (1844).

Metropolitan Consolidation over the long run in other places

When evaluating Louisville’s merger, a succinct comparative source is Stephens and Wikstrom (2000) “Metropolitan Government and Governance” New York: Oxford Press.

Chapter four (pp.68-87) of this book reviews some of the long term effects on the mergers in Baton Rouge, Nashville, Indianapolis, and Jacksonville, FL. All of these consolidated areas have essentially the same setup as Louisville: an urban services district, and a “general services district”(called the “suburban services district” in Louisville). The urban services district gets all of the city services for a higher tax rate while the general services district does not.

The urban services district for all the metros is the old central city, and the general services district is the rest of the county. In Jacksonville, Nashville, and Baton Rouge, there continued to be a disparity in services between the two districts. Stephens and Wikstrom noted that the citizens could opt for more services by referendum, but it meant a tax increase too, and they did not report any successful referendums for such.

Indianapolis is slightly different in service delivery. There is the same two tier setup of districts, but Stephens and Wikstrom report that the “Unigov” supervises solid waste disposal by private contractors outside of the excluded communities (p.87). So, everyone gets solid waste services thanks to the government there.

In short, Louisville is going down some of the same paths that some of the other merged communities (studied by Stephens and Wikstrom) have trod. Again, the disparity in services have persisted after decades in Baton Rouge, Jacksonville, and Nashville.

Stephens and Wikstrom did not evaluate Lexington’s merger with Fayette County. However, below is a link to an 2010 article by Dan Shaw of the “Evansville Courier and Press” on this merger from the “Indiana Economic Development Digest” that has covers some of the same subjects as Stephens and Wikstrom. What is important is that Shaw cited the same urban-suburban disparity in service delivery in Lexington/Fayette County as part of the process. Here is the URL http://www.indianaeconomicdigest.net/main.asp?SectionID=31&subsectionID=303&articleID=55535.

Bon Air/Highgate Springs—prominently in the Urban Services District

The Bon Air and Highgate Springs Neighborhood is predominantly in the Urban Services District, and has all of the city services. However, I have noted seeing that a few individual households were still privately paying a contractor for garbage pick up, which indicates there are a few parts of the neighborhood in the suburban services district.

It is also notable for the purposes of this post that Bon Air and Highgate Springs has two adjacent fire stations. One is at Bowman Field at the corner of Dutchmans Lane and Taylorsville Rd. The other is at Hikes Lane near Furman Blvd. More on this later

What the task force will do.

The executive order putting the task force into existence is rather general and gives the general parameters of the intent of the task force. One of the evident sources of information gathering for this task force will be public hearings for citizen input. In a theoretical sense the public hearings indicate that this task force is going to do an impact evaluation (versus process and outcome evaluations), and suggest some strategic planning options. Here is the URL to Mayor Fischer’s executive order: http://www.louisvilleky.gov/NR/rdonlyres/B74C87A2-C16E-42D2-B5E4-EBA175909846/0/merger20executiveorder.pdf

However, the press release put out by the mayor’s “newsroom” cuts to the chase about the focus. “The task force will focus on complex issues surrounding services such as recycling, garbage and junk pick-up and fire protection among others.” This happened to be hook the media used, and the rest of the blogosphere has focused on repeating quotes from both the Democrats and Republicans on the Metro Council along the lines of the press release. Here is this URL
http://www.louisvilleky.gov/Mayor/News/2011/01-06-11-merger.htm

Equity in city services

What seems different in Louisville is that the Louisville Water Company and the Metropolitan Sewer District were pre-existing service delivery arrangements that some of the other metros did not have prior to mergers. Well water and septic tanks have been outdated for sometime and if you have either one of these anywhere in Louisville-Jefferson County, your house has not been up to code for decades. However, it is my sense if the city father’s couldn’t get merger, they were going to do something, and MSD’s establishment in 1957 is one example.

The two main service inequities in Louisville are solid waste management and fire protection. (Street lighting may be a third, but it does not seem to be on the agenda.) There is a question whether residents in the suburban services district will want to pay higher property taxes for recycling and garbage collection and I will be surprised if there are any takers. Fire protection seems to be the likely to change of these issues.

Fire protection—what will likely affect Bon Air the most

Fire protection has been under the microscope on an off-and on basis since at least 2005. In 2005 Mayor Jerry Abramson had commissioned a fire department study from a Virginia-based consulting firm that was the epitome of efficiency studies. Here is the URL to the 2005 Fire Department study: http://www.louisvilleky.gov/NR/rdonlyres/B73A0B82-26FF-4B6A-8326-6CE2CCD5AF65/0/LouisvilleFireDepartmentStudyFinalReport.pdf.
It is important to clarify that this study only focused on the urban services district, which is covered by the Louisville Fire Department.

A few of us in the Bon Air were thankful that Jerry did not go along with the report recommendation to close down the Fire Station on Hikes Lane and build a new fire station on Newburg Road near Dumbarton Wynde (p.l44). However the winds of change appear to be blowing given that some of the 18 suburban fire districts are having problems of various kinds and there is talk of merging the suburban fire districts with LFD.

One could say that fire protection is of a life and death matter compared to whether you get government supplied solid-waste management versus having to pay a private trash collection firm. In politics, both officials and the electorate respond to crises much faster than to non-crises (a reason why state legislatures and Congress have notorious gridlock).

One of example of this talk is a proposal in early 2010 by Metro Council member Dan Johnson, (District 21) for the State of Kentucky Legislative Research Commission to study merging the suburban fire districts with the Louisville Fire Department. Go to this URL to see it: http://agendas.louisvilleky.gov/SIREPub/cache/2/fblzbeqcxyhnop55yewhwe45/38975501152011092047332.PDF).

The merger 2.0 task force seems to be another link in the chain to get the fire protection districts in Louisville merged with LFD. It will likely be easier to merge the fire districts given that the metrosafe system is already in place for uniform dispatching. It can be good in that there can be efficiency in placement of firehouses and asset management. However, as a result I can see the Highgate Springs/Bon Air Neighborhood saying good-bye to the firehouse on Hikes Lane with the next efficiency report that would balance out firehouse placement based on likely response times.

Merger’s benefits for Bon Air:

Changing gears, it has been my opinion that the merger has been so far good for the Bon Air Neighborhood area for existential reasons. We have been able to make developmental improvements to the area to date thanks to the dynamic of the consolidated city-county being divided into 26 districts. It has meant being able to get more attention and responsiveness from a metro council member than from the old city alderman and Fiscal Court member.

Take a cue from Paris France.

In light of this, one critique of other mergers (particularly Jacksonville, FL) is that it did not necessarily reduce poverty or income disparity in the urban core. This was something that Hank Savitch impressed upon me in his class on urban governance when reviewing the long term effects of merger. Louisville has urban core issues similar to Jacksonville, FL.

Something else I learned from Hank Savitch is Paris France has had multiple economic development zones, which I think helps it keep being the place people want to come and visit. Paris has multiple efforts to improve and develop, Louisville could learn from Paris in this case as it looks to the future and perhaps seeks to improve the urban core situation.

Not that I am campaigning to get on the Merger 2.0 task force, but as part of the future Louisville should have 26 economic development zones—each coterminous (sharing exact boundaries) with each Metro Council district. This is especially true for the Metro Districts in the proverbial urban core. Multiple grassroots, public-private partnerships should be developed and cultivated for improving each district to make it more appealing and livable based on each district’s locational advantages. The Fischer Administration should consider how to facilitate these.

Some districts may require radical, if not out of the box thinking to improve the neighborhood or district landscape and infrastructure to make use of locational advantage. Other districts can do well by doing what they are already doing. While not every district can have the same strategy, intensity in activity, outcomes, and impacts, a city must multi-task to make itself more attractive and competitive in the global economy for new industry and jobs. Furthermore, a city with a local economy that is more diverse and complex tends to weather economic downturns better a city dependent on a few types of industry.

Summation:

So, with merger 2.0 I see Louisville repeating some of the problems other merged metros have had. I see city fathers going around in circles on garbage collection (like other merged metros have) but I see them making headway on changing the fire protection system. I do hope that the task force and the city fathers will take some lessons from Paris on economic development in making merger more effective.