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June 2012
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Longtime problems in Louisville receiving much-needed attention


There is simply no denying it. For far too long Louisville has been mismanaged and performed poorly in important respects.

Kentucky's biggest city has big problems in public education, health, job creation, safety, and services. There is a lot to love about Louisville, which has had some notable successes. Yet several large-scale and long-running leadership failures have left it lagging behind comparable cities and less than it should be.

 The good news is that real reforms may belatedly be underway.

State auditor Adam Edelen performed a valuable service with his recent audit of Jefferson County Public Schools. Edelen is on target in saying his audit "identified outdated and inefficient operations that cost taxpayers millions of dollars, a school board that doesn't provide adequate oversight, an inconsistent contracting process, a toothless internal audit system and serious security and privacy concerns."

He is also correct that his report "paints a picture of a bureaucracy that benefits itself and keeps the board in the dark, rather than supports excellence in the classroom and a public mission of transparency and accountability." The best school board members admit his finding that they lack "a depth of understanding" of the $1.2-plus billion budget.

To its credit, the board moved boldly in hiring new superintendent Donna Hargens. The election of David Jones, Jr. to the board portends more progress. JCPS began reforms to reduce administrative bloat and improve management even before Edelen's audit.

Edelen is right about needing a bigger board, a better committee structure, improved contract and spending oversight, and more secure information systems. But there are critical issues omitted from his review.

The most glaring is the district's exorbitant spending on student transportation to enforce de facto racial quotas. Such expensive social engineering trumps student achievement on the priority list of some board members and bureaucrats.

Louisville is also unhealthy. The American College of Sports Medicine recently ranked the Louisville metropolitan area 49th out of 50 in fitness.

Mayor Greg Fischer is putting high priority on improving Louisville's health. His administration is involved in some positive initiatives, but an even more aggressive campaign is called for.

Recent mob violence revealed that Louisville has public safety problems, too. After a false start after the frightening mass melee, Fischer found his footing and took some prudent steps to improve downtown security.

Unfortunately, his proposed 3 percent fee on the natural gas bills of some, but not all, citizens is a bad idea. Fischer wants to raise $4.8 million for public safety spending, but the tax (and that is what it is whatever you call it) will not apply in cities like Jeffersontown, St. Matthews, Shively, and Prospect.

Fischer's goal may be laudable, but it is unfair to put the costs of better policing on the backs of only some citizens when all citizens will benefit. This will divide the community, not unite it.

Highly taxed Louisville citizens already get hit with 6.5 percent annual rate increases from the Metropolitan Sewer District. These yearly hikes will likely continue through 2018 to fund infrastructure improvements mandated by a federal consent decree. They make the years of MSD mismanagement all the more galling.

The sickening scandal of MSD's corruption and reckless spending predate Fischer, but he has moved to clean up the mess. Yet the annual increases and resentment at past practices poison public attitudes toward other areas of local government.

Who bears responsibility for Louisville's litany of ills? Former mayor and current lieutenant governor Jerry Abramson must shoulder substantial blame, but local Republicans, media, and citizens themselves must share in it.

Too long in power and coddled by his allies at the city's liberal newspaper, Abramson let Louisville slip in vital respects while he talked a big game. Lacking leadership and discipline, Republicans regularly criticized, but rarely offered specific alternatives. The press was too often either too passive or too late. The people kept putting the same people in power. Now it is up to all of us to do our parts in making Louisville better.

John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and political commentator.

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