Louisville On Short End Of State's Tax Dollar Stick

By Carrie Weil

(LOUISVILLE) -- Now the 16th largest city in the U.S., with a population of 700,000 and the home of a handful of worldwide companies, Louisville has made a name for itself. Or has it? From movers and shakers to cold hard cash, it seems Louisville is lacking a little respect. WAVE 3's Carrie Weil investigates Louisville -- Kentucky's snubbed city.

If Louisville is the state's economic engine, the money train only runs one way -- east to Frankfort, taking the city's respect for a ride.

Local leaders like Jim King know it. "I think it has been taken for granted for many, many years."

Well-known figureheads like UofL Coach Rick Pitino joke about it. "Everybody's coming to their senses in this state -- they're realizing the gateway to heaven has to come through Louisville."

A senator even perpetuated it. In the heated election campaign of 2004, Jim Bunning told a crowd that northern Kentucky would get a bridge before Louisville because they deserved it more.

The reality of Louisville being a snubbed city is more than a self-sacrificing mentality. It comes down to dollars and cents, and lots of it.

UofL Business Professor Paul Coomes says "$950 million a year is leaked out of this community to subsidize, basically, rural living in the rest of the state. That $950 million would purchase us a new bridge every year for cash."

Coomes has studied the situation for more than a decade, and he says it's not just a problem big cities must accept. He points to Indianapolis and Nashville, with more modern tax policies and funding formulas that equate to those cities getting their fair share -- while Louisville does not.

Coomes says "we get the least money of any county in the state per capita -- about $17 a head back. Some counties get $100 to $200 per capita back."

The lack of green affects everything from our green spaces to road projects and education, leaving Kentucky's biggest city scraping for money and on a fast track to nowhere when it comes to growth and increased prominence.

Coomes says "almost any rock you want to look under, you'll find anti-urban, anti-Louisville -- it's not personal, but it negatively affects Louisville in almost all formulas."

According to Coomes, Jefferson County residents pay $2 billion in taxes to state government, and every year, we get just $1 billion back. And it hurts.

"Road funding is just awful," Coomes said. "We lose probably $100 million a year."

It also affects education, Coomes says. "We are really clobbered ... we're losing about $350 million a year."

Kentucky has more state parks than any other state, but Coomes says the busiest of Kentucky's 250 parks is Tom Sawyer, "right here in Jefferson County. Guess which park gets the least money? Tom Sawyer."

So what's the problem?

The disparity boils down to more rural lawmakers than urban lawmakers, antiquated funding formulas, and an old-time mentality.

"We have this culture of sending all of the resources to Frankfort. And then, when you want a Little League field, you go ask the governor."

You don't have to look far -- or even listen hard -- for examples of underfunding. A stretch of I-264 from Poplar Level to Bardstown Road is in desperate need of a sound wall to shield residents from traffic noise.

Metro Council Member Jim King, a Democrat representing Louisville's 10th district, says "We continually talk to the state about it, and they say, 'yes, it's in the six-year plan.' However, the six-year plan's a revolving plan, and the reality is there's no money for it."

It's a similar situation in District 22, one of the fastest-growing in the county.

Republican Metro Council Member Robin Engel represents District 22. He says "We have two huge corridors that are on the shelf right now, waiting for funding."

He's talking about a Cooper Chapel Road corridor, stretching from Okolona to Fern Creek, and the Urton Lane Corridor, stretching from Billtown to Beulah Church Road. Both would relieve congestion on the Gene Snyder.

"They tell us there's no money," Engel said. "There's absolutely no money available. They've done studies, they've done some environmental studies. They bought right-of-way, but there's no longer money to begin the project."

They're all stories Professor Coomes has told over and over.

He is used to the reaction of shock and anger, as well as the inaction that follows. "I don't see a thing that we've changed in the 13 years that I've studied it."

If things were to change, here are some areas Professor Coomes says lawmakers should consider:

  • Lower top income tax rate to make Jefferson County competitive with growing cities of Nashville and Indianapolis.

  • Raise cigarette tax.

  • Expand gambling.

  • Realign higher education (including closing some universities).

  • Privatize park operations.

Online Reporter: Carrie Weil

Online Producer: Michael Dever