LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – A bill defining key powers of Louisville’s new police review board has yet to pass the Kentucky General Assembly, which returns for its final two days later this month.
After lawmakers stripped all references to the board’s subpoena authority, House Bill 309 now includes language allowing new suburban cities in Jefferson County and creating an easier path for existing cities to grow through annexation.
Those provisions could reshape small city governance in the county and Metro government's own coffers if they become law, essentially removing a prohibition on new cities in the merger of Louisville and Jefferson County governments nearly two decades ago.
It’s all part of the latest version of Louisville-focused legislation that proposes new term limits on the mayor, lets the Metro Council approve settlements greater than $1 million and weakens the Jefferson County Attorney’s role in reviewing council ordinances, among other things.
Rep. Jerry Miller, the bill’s prime sponsor, said he plans to meet soon with Sens. Morgan McGarvey and Julie Raque Adams of Louisville to hash out changes to the legislation that can pass the General Assembly and withstand a possible veto from Gov. Andy Beshear. The House and Senate can’t override vetoes of any bills approved March 29 and 30.
“So that's why we have to agree on something,” Miller, R-Eastwood, said in an interview this week. “The bill that gets passed -- ultimately, we have to make sure it doesn't get vetoed.”
Among the most divisive issues is the subpoena power of the new civilian review board charged to investigate the Louisville Metro Police Department. The Metro Council overwhelmingly approved creating the board last year in the wake of the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor.
Miller’s bill, co-sponsored by other Louisville Republicans, originally let the board and its inspector general request subpoenas through the Metro Council’s Government Oversight and Accountability Committee, which already has subpoena power.
A related bill sponsored by McGarvey, a Democrat from Louisville, would let the board seek subpoenas without the council panel’s involvement, although a circuit judge’s approval would be needed. That bill, Senate Bill 245, has stalled in the Senate.
Several Metro Council leaders, including President David James, told state legislators this month that they don’t support a bill without an independent subpoena process. The version now in the state Senate stripped all references to the review board this week.
“We need to finally agree on the language for the citizens review accountability board, and the subpoena power,” Miller said. Those changes need to come in his House version, he added, because McGarvey’s bill, “even if it could pass the Senate, it's not going to pass the House.”
The Senate’s version of House Bill 309 does expand the subpoena abilities of the Metro Council committee to include former city officers and appointees, in addition to current ones. That means former police officers would be subject to subpoenas from the council panel.
The measure also requires the council to approve expansion requests by suburban cities if at least three-fourths of the residents in area to be annexed sign a petition.
And it says new cities must be allowed within Jefferson County if 75 percent of residents in the proposed city boundary petition the council. If less than 75 percent requests a new city, the council still could approve the new city.
In essence, Miller said, those areas would be “suburban service districts” outside the existing Urban Service District, which encompasses the boundaries of the old city of Louisville and still serves as a taxing district for trash pickup and fire protection.
Sen. David Yates, D-Louisville and a former Metro Council president, said he believes there ought to be discussion about letting new small cities form in Jefferson County to provide services that may be done more efficiently. But he said he doesn’t support the current version of House Bill 309.
Yates said he favors “strong guardrails” on allowing new suburban cities, including Metro Council approval and a fiscal analysis of how those new cities would impact Metro government. For example, new cities could potentially mean less revenue from a tax on insurance premiums Metro collects.
“As written, where just the local people decide, it could be detrimental to the city. And I think we need to be really careful,” he said. “You can’t just siphon money, you know, piece by piece. It has to be an ongoing discussion.”
Voters approved merging the old city of Louisville and Jefferson County in 2000. More than 80 suburban cities remained intact inside the county even after the new merged government began in 2003.
Adding new cities would be a “significant change” that deserves voter approval, said Jerry Abramson, a Democrat who served 13 years as mayor of the old city of Louisville and 8 as mayor of Louisville Metro.
“Merger made it very clear that all the existing cities would continue to exist and only go out of business should they desire, but that there would be no more suburban cities,” he said in an interview. “Now if you want to change that, then put it on the ballot.”
Now is not the time to make these types of sweeping policy changes, said Louisville Metro Council member Bill Hollander, a Democrat who chairs the council’s budget committee.
“It's just not the kind of thing that should be dropped into a bill in the last week of the legislative session with no committee hearing in Frankfort. No committee hearings in Louisville. This is not something that community has talked about,” he said.
Hollander acknowledged that some residents of unincorporated areas may want to form their own small cities in order to get “additional services.” In those cases, he said, Metro government officials need to try to address ways to improve those services.
Forming new cities or letting current cities grow through annexation leads to less revenue for Metro government, Hollander said. “And we use that money for countywide services, our health department, our jail, LMPD, our human services like neighborhood places,” he said. “None of the cost of those services goes down, because a suburban city is formed. But our tax revenue for local Metro government does go down.”
The Jefferson County League of Cities hasn’t taken a position on the small city amendments to House Bill 309, said league president Bonnie Jung, the mayor of Douglass Hills in eastern Jefferson County. But Jung said she believes subdivisions or other areas have the right to incorporate.
She dismisses concerns over Metro government losing tax revenue, saying that other savings could even out those losses.
“Nobody ever looks as what the savings would be,” she said. For example, she said Middletown’s creation of its own police force reduced the burden on Louisville police to patrol those areas.
“Say any city decides to become a city, and Public Works picks up their garbage. Well, now no longer does Public Works have to pick up their garbage because they will be contracting themselves to another entity. That's one more savings,” she said.
As it stands now, House Bill 309 would require Metro government to submit a detailed annual report of the expenses and operations of the Urban Service District tax board.
It would restrict Louisville’s mayor to two straight terms starting in 2023, when Mayor Greg Fischer’s third term ends. It also lets a designee of the city’s police chief to make decisions, such as firing officers, or appear before an appeals board.
The legislature resumes March 29.
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