JERRY ABRAMSON COULD BE DESCRIBED as one of the godfathers of government consolidation in the United States.
As mayor of Louisville, Ky. from 1986 to 1999, he was a driving force behind efforts to merge the City of Louisville with surrounding Jefferson County, forming a new “Metro Government” that at its creation was the country’s 18th largest “city” with about 700,000 people. Voters approved the merger in November 2000, following three failed attempts decades earlier. Abramson then served two terms as mayor of Louisville Metro from 2003 to 2010. He went on to become lieutenant governor of Kentucky and served in the Obama administration as deputy assistant to the President and director of intergovernmental affairs from 2014 until 2017.
Sixteen years after Louisville Metro officially came into being, Abramson has a cameo role in the St. Louis area’s debate on a forthcoming proposal for the unification of St. Louis city and county. (McPherson was first to report on the proposal in mid-December.) Abramson visited St. Louis at the invitation of civic leaders in 2017 to share Louisville’s experience, and he appears in a video on Twitter posted by an affiliate of Better Together, the nonprofit sponsoring the proposal for St. Louis. People involved in the process expect the St. Louis proposal to draw from Louisville’s example — and those of other merged cities such as Indianapolis and Nashville — in several important respects.
Speaking to McPherson, Abramson said a combination of factors helped Louisville leaders win their “unity campaign” in 2000. Among them was a growing sense of frustration that Louisville was missing out on opportunities to lure businesses and raise its national profile due to the region’s fragmentation and its chaotic approach to economic development. Recalling two painful occasions when local disagreements sank the city’s chances of securing a National Basketball Association team, Abramson summarized the parting words of the teams’ owners as they packed their bags and headed to the airport: “Call us when you know who’s in charge of this community.”
The merger of city and county has saved money and fostered a new sense of possibility, but it has not been a panacea for all of Louisville’s troubles. Like St. Louis, it remains a metro area without an NBA team. The two regions share other similarities: shrunken urban cores that have lost residents and jobs to the suburbs, a history of busing programs introduced decades ago in an effort to desegregate schools, and dozens of small municipalities with their own mayors and city councils.
There are key differences, though. Unlike St. Louis, Louisville was not an independent city. Louisville Metro already had one large school district before the merger. And in Louisville only city and county residents voted on whether to unify; in St. Louis’ case, it looks likely that the entire state of Missouri will vote.
Prior to the merger, the former city of Louisville had a mayor and a 12-member Board of Aldermen. Jefferson County had an elected county judge-executive and a three-member county commission. These were replaced by a new mayor and a 26-member Metro Council. The first elections for Metro Council took place in November 2002, and Louisville Metro began operations on Jan. 1, 2003.
Abramson spoke with McPherson several days before Christmas in a wide-ranging telephone interview about the unity campaign and what came after. Excerpts follow.
On how life in the Louisville region is better today because of the creation of Louisville Metro:
Many of the things we talked about during the campaign have come to fruition. We now speak with one voice when we go to our legislature in the state capital: we are one community, no longer having the city’s agenda vs. the county’s put forward. We have enhanced our public safety, decreasing the number of police in administrative positions, allowing us to put more police on the street. We have much better, comprehensive EMS [Emergency Medical Services] delivery. We have a city council that is reflective of the entire community. During our budgeting process, this gives us an opportunity to set priorities for the community in general. And we now speak with one voice in terms of economic development.
In the past you had this imaginary line where the city stopped and the county started. We had a county EMS and we had a city EMS. If you were in a big shopping center parking lot, where half the lot was in the city and half was in the county, if an accident occurred they’d call 911. And the dispatcher would say, are you calling from the city or the county? You’d say, I’m in such-and-such parking lot, and they’d say, are you on the east side or the west side? And you’d have to decide which side it was.
“Louisville and Jefferson County were patches in a patchwork quilt. If a corner of that quilt is beginning to fray, the entire quilt is in jeopardy.”
My pitch [during the campaign] was that Louisville and the Jefferson County neighborhoods were patches in a patchwork quilt, and that we needed to see ourselves as interconnected. If a corner of that patchwork quilt is beginning to fray, the entire quilt is in jeopardy. So the problems of our community should be seen just as that: problems of our community, not just problems of a [single] disinvested neighborhood. We need to resolve those issues and problems as one.
On how Louisville civic and business leaders, after earlier failed attempts, won the unity campaign in the November 2000 election:
We decided to give everybody a chance to take a deep breath after back-to-back election losses [in the early 1980s], and determine what we wanted to be when we grew up. In the past there had been votes on merging the city and county, and eliminating all the suburban cities. There had been votes where we said ‘we’re going to merge the finance departments of the city and county; we’re going to merge the police departments.’ We had said specifically [what we intended to do].
The legislative framing was different this time. After meeting with all the elected officials in Jefferson County — the mayor, the county executive, the city council, the [suburban] city mayors, the sheriff, the county clerk, all the state legislators — we put together a task force to develop a piece of legislation that was sent to Frankfort [Kentucky’s capital]. And this time it was just the opposite: We said if suburban cities want to stay they get to stay, and the only way they ever get dissolved is if they want to dissolve themselves.
The legislation reflected this consensus. It simply said, ‘We will do away with the Mayor and the Board of Aldermen, and we will do away with the County Executive and the County Commission, and we will create a new Mayor and a new Metro Council with 26 members, and each member will represent about 27,000 people, and they must live in their district. And let’s go vote.’ And the new council and the new mayor would then determine which agencies and services would be merged, and which would not.
Now why does that make a difference? Because one of the times when we lost, I remember knocking on a door and the lady said, ‘You know, I think it’d be great to merge, but my cousin works for EMS in the county. They’re really afraid that if they merge with EMS in the city that they’ll lose this benefit, or they’ll lose this salary adjustment.’ And she says therefore I’ll have to vote against it. This time I was able to say, ‘Well, we’re not merging EMS. That’s going to be up to the city council that you’re going to have a representative on, to say whether they should merge EMS; should they merge public works; should they merge police departments.’ That may sound silly and not important, but it had been a big issue in at least one of the earlier failures.
On how Louisville leaders explained to residents of incorporated cities in Jefferson County — suburbs analogous to St. Louis County municipalities such as Chesterfield, Clayton, Ferguson, Pine Lawn and Sunset Hills — that those municipalities would continue to exist within the framework of the new Louisville Metro:
We had about 83 of these cities; most of them were four-and five-block cities. I think the largest one was about 25,000 people. We explained it as follows: One, it said in the law that the only way a suburban city could go out of business was if they voted to dissolve themselves. Metro Council could not dissolve them, nor could the mayor. Two, let’s say you lived in Middletown [a Louisville suburb with a population of about 6,000 at the time of the merger]. You had a county commissioner who represented 250,000 people, including the 6,000 in Middletown, and that’s all you had in terms of a voice on community-wide issues.
“Young African-American professionals bought into the argument that it’s better to have a smaller slice of a growing pie than a larger slice of a shrinking pie.”
What we said to them is, ‘Every new district of 27,000 people will have a Metro Council member who will live in that district, and whom you can engage with on the issues of the day.’ What it means is there are Metro Council members, where every piece of ground they represent is in a suburban city. Those residents still vote for their suburban mayor and suburban council. But for the first time, these suburban residents, that make up a third of our population, would also have a voice on community-wide issues. That’s the way we pitched it.
About half of the mayors of those suburban cities believed us, and supported it. And about half the mayors didn’t believe us, even though it was written down in the law, and were against it.
On how proponents of Louisville Metro built support among African-Americans for the merger:
Every African-American elected official was opposed to the merger. About 30 or 35 percent of the old city was African-American, and a third of the Board of Aldermen members were African-American. Countywide, including the city, it was about 19 percent. The African-American elected leadership said the merger would dilute their political strength, especially in the old city.
What we said was, we will design the 26 Metro Council districts to reflect the makeup of our new community… trying to keep neighborhoods together, and ultimately trying to ensure that at least 20 percent of the new Metro Council would be represented by minorities. It all worked out and they had that 20 percent, and now they have a little bit more. There’s one district that from time to time goes one way or the other.
What happened is the young African-American professionals — the insurance [executives], the lawyers, the accountants, the doctors, the bankers — they bought into the argument that it’s better to have a smaller slice of a growing pie than a larger slice of a shrinking pie. As a result, about 29 percent of the African-American community — which was the largest percentage of all the times we put it on the ballot — voted in favor of the merger.
On concerns that city-county mergers mean affluent suburbs will have to “bail out” poorer areas:
If you buy the ‘patchwork quilt’ approach, difficulties in one area of your community have the potential of taking down the entire community. In this day and age, communities are where the action is. The places with multiple governmental entities, where there’s no basis for these boundaries, end up not being as strong as those that are pulling together in the same direction. I guess people can make the argument ‘I’ve got mine, to hell with you.’ I just don’t buy that.
One of the real benefits we had, that a lot of cities don’t have, is a consolidated school system. Our city and county schools had been merged in the ‘70s, as a result of court-ordered busing and integration. So we had one school system already. That gave us the benefit, for years, of thinking about how important the public school system was for the entire community. And now we were asking people to think of the community itself, and the importance of resolving difficulties as they had done with schools.
The wealthier sections of the community, which you would perceive to be Republican, were overwhelmingly in favor of the merger. The million and a half dollars we raised to put this campaign on was raised by the business community. They were one thousand percent in favor. They just wanted to do business. They didn’t care which side of the road they were on, as long as the regulations and the licensing and the permitting were the same. The competition between city and county was anathema to them.
On the approach Louisville took — following the examples of Indianapolis, Nashville, Jacksonville and other cities that merged with their surrounding counties — to allow property taxes to remain higher in the area that had formerly been the city of Louisville:
In Louisville, if you live in the old city of Louisville, you live in the Urban Services District. You get more services; you pay higher taxes. If you live in the ‘unincorporated’ area of Louisville Metro, you pay the least amount of taxes; you receive the least amount of services. And if you live in a suburban city you get whatever you want to pay for, beyond the services the unincorporated area would provide. We had [roughly equal] thirds: a third Urban Services District, a third unincorporated, a third suburban residents [in incorporated municipalities].
“When I became mayor of the new city I was like Noah: I had two of everything.”
The unincorporated people were the ones that were the most confused. And so when the merger occurred I started getting calls from those areas saying, ‘When do we start getting free garbage pickup?’ ‘When do we start getting free street lights?’ ‘When do we start getting free recycling?’ ‘When do we start getting free fire protection?’ I would always say, ‘More than happy to do it. All you gotta do is pay the taxes.’ There is no free lunch.
When I took office as the new [Metro] mayor, I had spent an enormous amount of time preparing Ordinance No. 1, to provide the legislation to the Metro Council, at their first session, to merge everything. I mean everything. And they passed it. And we did it. That’s the way we did it [a complete merger of city-county services]. It was a two-step process.
So we did it all. We began painting our police cars, so people would see it was a new day with a new name: Louisville Metro Police. We started painting our EMS ambulances differently. We tried to do the visible things, to get people thinking: We’re all one.
On the fact that city-county mergers don’t create new wealth and don’t immediately bring jobs or improve the tax base; and responding to research showing job growth in the Louisville area has lagged the national average since the merger:
Things don’t change overnight, but we can show we are more cost effective in delivering services by being consolidated.
When I became mayor of the new city I was like Noah: I had two of everything. How many police chiefs do you need? How many public works directors, how many finance directors do you need? We were more cost effective, and I know that for a fact. In the recession of 2007-08, a lot of my colleagues around the country were closing library branches or firehouses. We never had to do any of that, because we were benefiting from the cost savings.
For example, we merged the city mayor’s office with the county executive’s office, and we saved $700,000 a year. You put the city and county together and go to Wall Street for your bond issue rating; we got the highest bond rating that either the city or county had ever had. You put your vehicle fleet maintenance together; we had savings of over a million dollars.
Having said that, as in any new business you have startup costs. I had to paint all those police cars and ambulances. We had an argument in the police department; the county police had a stripe on their pants, the city didn’t. We had to decide whether we were going to have a stripe or not.
But we’re more effective. We speak with one voice in our state legislature. We speak with one voice in economic development opportunities. CEOs would say to us, ‘It’s a pleasure working with one entity, rather than fighting over which jurisdiction to locate in.’ Did that ultimately make or break their decision to come to Louisville? That’s a tough one.
Editor’s note: The introduction to this article draws on the work of the Abell Foundation, a private foundation serving Maryland that focuses on promoting civic conversation and fighting concentrated poverty in Baltimore (the only independent city in the U.S. besides St. Louis). The foundation worked with independent researcher Jeff Wachter to produce reports on government consolidation in Louisville and Indianapolis in 2013 and 2014, respectively. These reports are available in the publications library on the Abell website at https://www.abell.org.