Get Out Your Hatchet—It’s Budget-Cuttin’ Time

Mayor Greg Fischer gave his State of the City Address today at the Galt House. His speech began optimistically enough, taking the opportunity to highlight a few of his first year’s achievements—the preservation of Whiskey Row, new job creation and smart phone apps that deliver public safety announcements.

Fischer said the budget is tight

He also spoke about the BEAM project: Mayor Fischer and Mayor Gray of Lexington, with their powers combined, plan to create an advanced manufacturing super-region. Muah-ha-ha! And of course, the bridges project had to have at least a few minutes in the limelight.

But the real meat of Fischer’s address focused on our city’s quickly crumbling “fiscal footing.” The Mayor reports a $12 million shortfall for the 2011 fiscal year—that’s after already hacking off $22 million in budget cuts. And if you think this year is bad, our deficit is crouched and ready to skyrocket up to $20 to $30 million for the next fiscal year beginning July 1, 2012. Yikes!

These are some scary figures, especially considering cities like Las Vegas, Birmingham and Detroit, who have recently gone bankrupt, as Fischer reminds us. But, fear not: Greg’s got a plan—or well, some general ideas. And I hate to break it to you, but most of them involve serious cuts. Faced with truly dire budget woes, it looks like Mayor Fischer is going to have to put away the scalpel and pull out the machete.

Any service that is not a “core government responsibility” is at risk. Of course, there is much debate to be had over which responsibilities constitute the “core”; but according to Fischer, they begin with public safety (police, firefighters) and public health (garbage pick-up). From there on, it gets a little stickier.

We know for certain that Fischer plans to make changes to Louisville-Metro’s pension program and sick leave. The Mayor’s characterization of current Metro programs as “way out of line compared to private programs” bodes ill for employee benefits, and the implied cuts promise to raise a much bigger “stink” than skipped garbage pick-ups, that’s for sure.

Although the Mayor’s address generally predicted dark clouds on the horizon, he did attempt to put a little sunshine in our city’s forecast—or at least an umbrella. He has four major goals for Louisville in 2012, and they sound pretty good. The first is to “deliver excellent city services,” working “smarter and more efficiently.” The second is to create even more jobs in our community. Fischer believes BEAM will play a key role here. Thirdly, Fischer wants to embrace the international community and foster inclusion. And fourth, he wants our city to create a 25-year “city vision”.

Hey, visions are nice. So is talking about delivering “excellent city services”. But it’s difficult to reconcile such optimism with the decidedly scarce times ahead. I’m not saying I don’t think we can do it; but we can’t deny it’s going to take some sacrifice, as well as some real creativity, and not just from conventional sources.