Metro Council president questions public money for banquets, charity events

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by Joe Arnold

WHAS11.com

Posted on June 8, 2011 at 6:26 PM

Updated Thursday, Jun 9 at 12:09 AM

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11)-  While supporting the concept of Neighborhood Development Funds (NDF), the Louisville Metro Council president is questioning the use of tax dollars to pay for council members to attend charity banquets, galas and balls.
 
"We're supporting charitable organizations, but frankly the council member may be attending and taking their friends and family, and I have to question that," said Jim King (D) after a Louisville Forum debate on the NDF funds.
 
"Buy your own ticket instead of taking your family or your friends," said Councilman Kelly Downard (R).
 
King and three other council members participated in the debate.
 
'The general public believes that the council has a checkbook," King said, "That's just not true."
 
Yet, each year, each council member does have more than $200,000 at their disposal, including $75,000 in neighborhood development funds. 

With council approval, it is spent not just for public improvements, but to fulfill myriad community wish lists.
 
* $75,000 Neighborhood Development Fund
* $100,000 Capital Infrastructure Fund
* $30,000 Cost Center (office supplies and district events)
 
Minority Caucus Chair Ken Fleming (R) is calling for changes.
 
"If we are to keep them, we must change them," Fleming said.
 
Fleming proposes:
 
* reduce NDF allocation by half.  The resulting $1 million to be applied to deficit reduction and to the external agency process of grants to charitable organizations.
 
* post all NDF and CIF and office account expenditures online
 
* stop transfer between accounts
 
* strengthen rules, clarify what is a public purpose for funds
 
"Our peer cities do not have these types of funds," said Councilman Jerry Miller (R), "presumably because they believe legislators should legislate and not become their own mini-mayors."
 
In fact, a review of competitor cities shows no NDF type funds in:
 
Cincinnati
Indianapolis
Columbus
Oklahoma City
Kansas City
Nashville - which scrapped the idea after trying it for one year.
 
"I've asked for the data on that," said Mayor Greg Fischer (D), "and if we're unusual, then we need to have unusually fantastic results to validate that.  We'll see if that's the case."
 
The council president argues that members should not have to go to the mayor for every little community need.
 
"This is not only impractical, it's nonsense," said King, "especially in those areas of town represented by Democrats that are typically less affluent and deteriorating."
 
"For an amount that represents one half of one percent of the city budget, I happen to believe that good government begins at the grass roots level," said King, "and no one is more familiar with the needs of a district than its council member."
 
Recent ethics allegations against Councilwoman Judy Green regarding NDF spending on a summer jobs program and the rerouting of an NDF grant to other organizations has increased scrutiny of council spending.
 
"I think the great thing that is happening with these NDF and Capital Infrastructure funds is that we're having a broad conversation about it," Fischer said, "So, it's very transparent. There's a lot of things going on, so the people are getting informed about how they're used."
 
Of particular concern to Republicans is that council members are allowed to transfer money from their CIF account to their NDF account.  Furthermore, members are also allowed to transfer the NDF money into the cost center accounts, where there is far less oversight or a requirement of the full council's approval.
 
"There are people who are moving $40,000 to $50,000 a year from NDF to their office and nobody knows where it goes," Downard said, "That's wrong."
 
Council members explained that the practice began because incoming members were left with empty accounts by outgoing members. And, unforeseen events, such as windstorms and ice storms, exhaust the NDF budget.
 
Downard's criticism is unabated.
 
"It is wrong," Downard said, "and I think it's come to light and we're going to be able to deal with it.
 

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