SUNDAY EDITION | In era of merged government, suburban cities may grow again
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Bill Seng has counted as many as nine garbage trucks coming up and down his street in a single week – even though Springwood Lane is a cul-de-sac with only 13 homes.
Two of the homes get their garbage, recycling and yard waste picked up by the city of St. Matthews. But the other 11 homeowners must contract independently for those basic services because they don't belong to a small city and are outside Louisville Metro's pick-up area – thus, the occasional array of trucks.
Seng and the other residents of the "unincorporated" Springwood Lane would gladly pay a few hundred dollars more in property taxes to eliminate this hodge-podge. Plus, joining St. Matthews would give them services they don't get now, like snow removal.
Yet, St. Matthews' attempt to annex these 11 homes raises a larger question: In an era of "merged" government, should the 82 independent cities remaining in Louisville be allowed to get bigger?
"The goal of merged government is to have one government, one entity that manages the entire county," Metro Council President Jim King said in an interview.
Louisville leaders haven't had to wrestle with expansions by suburban cities since 2003, when the old city of Louisville and Jefferson County combined to form a city-county government.
The merger did not eliminate independent cities like Jeffersontown and St. Matthews. But it did prohibit them from annexing territory for 12 years -- a ban that ends next January.
King and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer are putting together a committee to study the issue. Once the moratorium expires, the Metro Council still has the power to block any annexations.
St. Matthews contends the 12-year clock has already run out, and its request to annex Springwood Lane should arrive at the Metro Council in the next few days, city attorney Foster Haunz said.
There are about 353,000 people who, like the homeowners on Springwood Lane, live outside the boundaries of the old city of Louisville, but not in another incorporated city, according to an analysis by Sarah Ehresman of the Kentucky State Data Center at the University of Louisville and Ron Crouch of the Kentucky Office of Employment and Training. That's about half of Jefferson County's population as of the 2010 Census.
Unincorporated areas include places like Fern Creek, Pleasure Ridge Park and Fairdale.
Unless they are part of a homeowners' association, these residents are on their own for garbage, recycling, junk pickup and streetlights – services that other homeowners get by paying additional property taxes, either to Metro government (those in the old city of Louisville) or to a suburban city.
Everyone agrees suburban homeowners should get city-like services if they are willing to pay more taxes. But which municipality should receive the taxes and provide the services?
"The reality is, we either have to allow small cities to expand – an action that is inconsistent with the concept of merged government – or we will have to find a way to expand our (Metro government) services," King told the Metro Council on Jan. 6.
King prefers that Metro government expand its service territory. For example, if St. Matthews annexed all the remaining unincorporated land, Jefferson County would again have a big municipal government operating independently of the county government – the very inefficiency city-county merger was designed to eliminate, King told WDRB. (He acknowledged that's a far-fetched scenario).
But St. Matthews Mayor Bernie Bowling said it "wouldn't make sense" for Metro government to send garbage trucks miles outside its city service area to take care of Springwood Lane, which is surrounded by suburban cities.
Bowling said St. Matthews' attempt to annex Springwood Lane is not a "power grab" but a response to a unanimous request by the 11 homeowners.
"None of the small cities are out to gobble up areas," he said. "They only want to provide services to people that ask them."
Fischer has not taken a position on whether it should be small cities or the bigger Metro government that expand services in the suburbs, said Mary Ellen Wiederwohl, the mayor's chief of strategic initiatives.
"We start this with two basic premises: We are one city and one merged government; and, how do we get these services to these companies and residents?" Wiederwohl said. "This work group will be looking at what those best answers are."
Wiederwohl noted that the 2002 merger law allows Metro government to create "service districts" where additional taxes could be levied to pay for more services, so long as those districts don't adversely affect the existing cities.
She and King added that no one wants to force higher taxes on unwilling property owners. The merger law says a service district can be created with a petition from a majority of the registered voters in the new district.
Jeffersontown Mayor Bill Dieruf said bigger suburban cities like his provide plenty of additional services to businesses, and it would be foolish to chase away a company to another metro area because J'town can't expand its snow removal, public works and other benefits to a bigger territory.
"The worst thing we could do is come out fighting (over land)," he said. "We are trying to attract people and businesses here. There is a time when some annexations just make sense."
To Bowling, the reluctance to let St. Matthews expand stems from the desire of some, going back to merger, to eliminate the small cities altogether.
"I keep hearing a lot from downtown that the little cities were supposed to go away; the message is, we are not even supposed to be here," he said.
The continued existence of the independent cities – an unusual structure in a "merged" government -- does lead to some uneven tax burdens on residents and other complications.
For example, workers at the Kroger, Walmart and other stores in the six-tenths-of-a-square-mile city of West Buechel have to pay an additional 1.5 percent of their wages to West Buechel, whether they have any connection to the city other than working there.
It's one of four suburban cities – the others are J'town, St. Matthews and Shively – that tax workers' paychecks on top of Louisville Metro's countywide earnings tax.
The main benefit is police protection by West Buechel's small department, but the West Beuchel workers already pay for Louisville Metro police through the countywide occupational tax.
For the same reason, workers at the Mall St. Matthews pay 0.75 percent of their wages to St. Matthews, a tax that doesn't apply to workers just across the Watterson Expressway at Oxmoor Center.
And, as WDRB reported in November, the small cities also complicate Mayor Greg Fischer's local-option sales tax plan, as the proposal could give them the power to levy their own sales taxes within their borders. The idea behind the local-option proposal is a countywide tax to pay for transformational public projects.
Yet, the suburban cities can also offer big advantages to their residents with, as Metro Councilman Ken Fleming put it, "really good, quick, reactionary, low-cost services" – including some things Metro government can't afford to do.
Springwood Lane is much too small a road for Metro government to salt and plow when snow falls (Louisville Metro's snow map). Yet, St. Matthews treats all the roads in the city for snow and has already taken care of Springwood this winter on the assumption that it's soon to become part of the city, Bowling said.
Metro government occasionally fills in potholes on Springwood Lane, but the road is in bad shape and much more likely to be re-paved by St. Matthews, said Seng, who happens to be chief of the St. Matthews fire district, which is separate from the city government. (Both Metro government and suburban cities get a portion of the statewide gas tax to use toward road maintenance).
While residents of the old city of Louisville get only a few times a year to put out junk items for collection, St. Matthews' garbage collector can take junk at any time, Bowling said.
While both Metro government and St. Matthews pick up bagged yard waste, St. Matthews homeowners have the additional option of raking their leaves to the curb, where special vehicles come by once or twice a season to suck them up, Bowling said.
Finally, St. Matthews' police department is more responsive to residents than Louisville Metro police, Bowling said.
Seng said the larger questions about merged government "are left better answered by somebody else."
"It just seems like it makes sense that this area is in the city of St. Matthews," he said.
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