Mayor Greg Fischer’s plan for spending the first $39.8 million of new federal COVID-19 relief funds received some pushback from Metro Council members ahead of Thursday’s budget committee meeting. The plan was passed with some amendments.
The changes came after Fischer’s plan hit a snag during a special committee meeting Monday. It still includes almost $20 million for continued vaccination outreach, contact tracing and eviction diversion and prevention.
Another part of the plan didn’t sit well with some council representatives. Fischer wanted to spend nearly $10 million on trying to bring tourism back to downtown. But council members voted against spending that money on the mayor’s proposed economic development plans.
To accomplish that, Fischer initially proposed a roughly $3.5 million expenditure to hire more security officers for downtown and Waterfront Park.
“We have hundreds of comments from people who do not feel more safe with the presence of police, whether it’s LMPD or other means,” said Councilmember Jecorey Arthur (D-4) at a special budget meeting earlier this week. “So we are talking about safety in the opposite direction of the way they feel.”
Of the $3.5 million, city officials say $300,000 will go toward hiring five new “safety ambassadors” who help keep downtown clean, but are also trained in public safety. The vast majority of the money will be used by LMPD to increase police patrols of downtown.
City officials initially argued that the money was needed to combat the perception of downtown as unsafe. Officials said there’s been an increase in “nuisance behavior” at Waterfront Park.
Deborah Bilitski, president of the Waterfront Development Corporation, said her staff has seen drag racing on River Road, dirt bikes on pedestrian paths and vandalism.
“We’ve seen first-hand and we’ve received first-hand feedback from park visitors that particularly after the hours of maybe 6 p.m., there’s just a turn,” she said. “I think the presence of police officers in the area does act as a deterrent to some of that behavior.”
Arthur pushed back against Bilitski’s comments, saying that downtown Louisville is historically one of the safest parts of Jefferson County.
“We have sat on so many panels in the past few months, some of you on this screen have sat on panels talking about how safe downtown is,” he said. “Now here we are looking at $3.5 million for security downtown.”
Ultimately, in discussion on Thursday, the budget committee voted to cut the proposed $3.5 million for community ambassador programs and enhanced security down to $1 million.
Other Metro council members voiced concerns about Fischer’s proposal.
District 21 representative Nicole George said she doesn’t believe the spending plan does enough for the city’s economic recovery.
George said she visited numerous businesses in her district along Preston Highway last week, speaking to business owners who have struggled to stay afloat during the pandemic. While it includes $5 million for Louisville Tourism, George said it doesn’t offer much for small businesses.
“I find it really difficult to swallow the fact that we’re trying to manage perceptions so that folks can feel good … to go downtown,” she said. “I find it hard to understand such a large investment when I know I’m not alone in serving areas that have significant concerns with crime, quality of life, supports to small businesses that are needed for economic health.”
Councilmember Cindi Fowler (D-14) echoed George’s concerns.
“I understand the need downtown, but it’s not the only area that is dealing with this,” Fowler said.
Following her comments Fowler made a motion to table the legislation, which delayed a vote on the spending plan. The motion passed unanimously.
The full Metro Council meets again Thursday, June 24.
Correction: Deborah Bilitski’s name was spelled incorrectly in a previous version of this article.