LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Mayor Greg Fischer touted growing jobs, low unemployment and investment across Louisville on Thursday, while arguing in his annual state-of-the-city address that a plan to combat record levels of violent crime is working.
Fischer, a Democrat who has announced he will run for a third term as mayor this year, told members of the Rotary Club of Louisville that there are “unprecedented” levels of money being spent in the city’s western areas, including a $220 million plan to reshape the Russell neighborhood.
He noted that the Omni hotel downtown is set to open this year, along with the new Kentucky International Convention Center and bourbon-related tourism projects that include an Old Forester distillery on Whiskey Row.
Fischer also staked out positions on several issues facing state lawmakers, coming out in favor of a $1 per pack increase on cigarettes. He said higher tobacco taxes are a “win-win” that would generate an estimated $266 million in new revenue and save lives. (A Republican state Senator has filed a bill that would add a $1-per-pack charge.)
The mayor warned that Metro government services could be cut if the Kentucky General Assembly fails to address state pension shortfalls, saying the city faces an estimated $38 million increase in its retirement obligations this year without any changes. He said later the increase could be offset by additional revenues of $25 that are expected this year.
“We are always ready to deal with the unexpected, but this will be difficult for the people of Louisville and force Metro government to reduce existing services,” he said, speaking at the Louisville Free Public Library's southcentral branch in Okolona.
And he urged state lawmakers to tackle pension and tax reform together and criticized a tax code he said was designed to support last century’s economy.
“We must reform an outdated system that exempts as much as it taxes,” Fischer said. “We need to take a hard look at a tax code that exempts luxury items. It doesn’t make any sense to consider cuts that can hurt a child’s classroom, law enforcement, drug treatment or our justice system when we don’t even tax country club memberships or limousine rides.”
Fischer said the city is making strides in its battle with opioids. Last year, Metro government sued three of the nation’s largest opioid distributors for their role in sending dangerous drugs into the city.
Illegal drugs have contributed to a rise in violent crime in large cities in recent years, Fischer said. Louisville Metro Police investigated 107 murders in 2017 – the second highest on record – but down from 117 in 2016.
In response to an increase in violent crime, Louisville added more police officers and joined a federal task force that is targeting violent criminals. In November, five gang members were arrested and named in a 40-count indictment that alleged weapons and other charges.
Fischer cited LMPD data that shows that violent crime largely declined in 2017, including overall shootings.
“We will keep working our plan and always seek new, good ideas to improve all results that I just talked about,” he said.
Republican Metro Council member Angela Leet, who is running for mayor, attended the mayor’s speech and told reporters afterwards that she agreed with Fischer’s optimism and the city’s role as Kentucky’s economic engine.
But she diverged with Fischer on his view of crime data.
“I still feel that crime was not significantly or adequately addressed,” she said. “I think saying the statistics are down and when you’re making those comparisons to a record high year of violent crime is not a genuine response.”
Asked if she believed the anti-violence efforts mentioned by Fischer are working, she said: “If you talk to victims and survivors of gunshots wounds—obviously they’re not working.”
She said she’s concerned about police morale and a new police policy that reduces the minimum amount of initial on-the-job training for new LMPD officers to 16 weeks, from 26 weeks.
She said Fischer’s speech was trying to generate a “positive message” about the city but ignored other pressing needs.
“We haven’t dealt with the crumbling infrastructure in our community. We have city buildings where we can’t even keep inmates warm,” she said. “So we’ve got to deal with these issues and we’ve got to be realistic about what our capacity is.”