WHAS11’s Joe Arnold investigated the Louisville Metro Council and a $2 million fund.
Until now, it's gone largely unchecked.
To find out how council members are spending the money intended for neighborhood development, WHAS11 reviewed every grant and appropriation from that fund in the last fiscal year.
$13,000 in neighborhood development tax dollars bought laptop computers for students at this high school, $7,250 paid for this guest speaker at a YMCA banquet and you paid $338 for the band at a senior citizens dance at Assumption High School all in the name of neighborhood development.
“It’s too ambiguous. It’s too wide open. You can spend on anything you want,” said Kevin Kramer.
Each council member's neighborhood development fund account gets $75,000 per year but the way it's spent depends on the council member.
“It should be something that five years from now you should be able to see that the money was spent there, ideally it should be spent on capital projects, and rarely if ever on operating expenses,” said Kramer.
Our review found many neighborhood specific grants like beautification efforts at Cherokee Park and the Douglass Loop, and a new PA system at the Ballard High stadium.
There’s bipartisan support for YMCA Safe Places and school performances by the Blue Apple Players.
Republicans have fewer but bigger appropriations, like a $500,000 bike and pedestrian safety project.
“Is for more than just fixing sidewalks and alleys, it's also to promote a sense of camaraderie, a sense of community,” said Judy Green.
For some Metro Council members "neighborhood development" means sending people out of the neighborhood.
One grant spent $5000 to buy plane tickets to send a middle school class from Louisville to Maine.
It's part of an ongoing environmental program at Lassiter Middle School, “to give those kids the experience to go to another area of the country which most of them, I think none of them had never been on an airplane before," explained Vicky-Aubrey Welch.
$4700 helped the Louisville Leopard Percussionists go to Washington D.C.
Cheri Bryant Hamilton says said west Louisville needs more help than east Louisville.
“They don't have a need. I mean they've got organizations that can fully fund and take care of their needs, where down here the organizations are struggling and they need a little more help,” said Hamilton.
Kevin Kramer said, “I think it’s a mistake to suggest there aren't poorer areas of town all over. I have some low income areas in District 11.”
Big chunks of neighborhood development money went instead to charities like the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life and the Louisville AIDS Walk.
Our review estimates $28,500 spent on holiday parties and toys for kids.
“I believe that the constituents elected us to use our good judgment to make those kinds of calls,” said Judy Green.
It also means added exposure. A Jim King grant paid supported the world's largest Halloween party at the Louisville Zoo.
A Brent Ackerson grant got him and 9 guests a corporate table at the Zoofari fundraiser.
In fact, council members routinely and unapologetically use neighborhood development funds to buy tickets at galas, charity dinners and lunches.
“I get to invite constituents of mine to join me at the table. Typically I invite people who don't otherwise know about the organization or might be interested in it, or who don't have the funds to participate,” said Tina Ward-Pugh.
Our investigation also reveals churches getting tax dollars cleared by the county attorney including the Portland Memorial Baptist Church Camp, St. Nicholas Academy students thanking Doug Hawkins for his generosity in paying Iroquois Amphitheater rental for their graduation, and two south Louisville churches got $4500 each for "community celebrations."
“I think it's a partnership; it's a partnership in my mind like any other you would have,” said Rick Blackwell.
Grants that stretch the definition of neighborhood development continue unabated like scholarships for the Miss Louisville and Miss Jeffersontown competitions and grand prizes for a voter outreach program, t-shirts, field trips, anger management, popcorn machines, restaurant gift cards, and after school snacks.
"Do you want to cause a big stink over a $500 or $400, when you've got bigger scenario you've got to deal with and so forth? Some council members say 'you know what, let’s go ahead and go on with it, because we've got bigger fish to fry,'” said Ken Fleming.
Some Metro Council members also use neighborhood development funds to increase pay for staff members.
Some even transfer money from their capital infrastructure funds to the neighborhood development accounts.