You may think of Louisville, Kentucky—if you think of it at all—as a sprawling, midsize, metropolitan community of 800,000 m the Upper South. But like most other American cities, Louisville is legally not one community, but many. County-wide there is a total of 95 governments: Louisville, the county, and 93 small cities. There are also 22 fire districts, two main police forces, and two EMS services. Some of our city fathers think we are in danger of smothering under this crazy quilt. Consequently, for the fifth time in four decades, government consolidation in Jefferson County has come up for debate.

In the name of progress, efficiency, and tax savings, many in the county are pushing some kind of extensive government reform—to bring to this hodgepodge “one leader, one legislative body, and one vision,” as Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson puts it. The issue is a complicated one, in part because merger could mean very different things. Jefferson County could abolish all governments and establish a metro government countywide. The county could merge with all but Louisville and the 11 largest small cities, leaving these municipalities certain powers. The city and county governments alone could merge and leave all the small cities intact. Or the city and county could stay much as they arc and simply merge certain functions.

The debate concerns not just what Louisville is, but what it will become. Some civic leaders look longingly at two comparable neighbors, both of which have consolidated governments: Indianapolis, which has grown 13 percent in the past two decades, and Nashville, up 2 percent in the same period. Since 1970, Jefferson County has lost about 30,000 people. “Why have those cities prospered so substantially better than we?” asked A. Wallace “Skip” Crafton, a Democratic insider and a partner at the state’s largest law firm. He believes the answer is, in part, merged government. Through consolidation, Indianapolis and Nashville have come up with a way “to arrive at a community consensus of what they want to do.” That consensus, he said, has led to growth.

In Jefferson County, merger was last voted on, and voted down, in 1982 and 1983. The fight was a bitter one. Today, opponents are already organizing to defeat any sweeping measure that would threaten their constituencies, and the rhetoric has grown sharp.

By no means does everyone share Grafton’s and the mayor’s desire for consolidation. Jefferson County District “C” Commissioner Darryl T. Owens said that while Mayor Abramson has indicated his support for “major surgery” in local government, “before I operate, I want to know what the illness is.” Owens does not believe that multiple services necessarily mean duplication and inefficiency. “The reality is that merger costs more and is less efficient—that’s the data,” he said. “And I don’t know that we necessarily need one leader.”

Somewhere in the middle is Peyton Hoge III, mayor of the small city of Anchorage. He favors merging city and county governments but opposes including the small cities such as his own. He wonders why all communities in Jefferson County should speak with one voice, for various areas want various services and zoning laws. “Our goals are different.”

The most commonly used argument for merger is that it will bring more economic growth to greater Louisville. Bill Stone, president of Louisville Plate Glass Company, speaks for many when he touts the marketing advantage Louisville would gain if it were one of the 25 largest cities in the country. (Merged with the entire county, Louisville would actually become number 16. It is now far down the list at 58.)

Since the 50’s, the fight for one government has been led by the Louisville business community. The most recent attempts in 1982 and 1983 were led by the Chamber of Commerce, which spent $600,000 unsuccessfully to promote two plans that would have merged city and county governments. In Louisville, the business community wants two things: a simplified government structure (“so they only have to make one call, instead of two,” as merger opponent Darryl Owens puts it) and more economic growth. Louisville’s Mayor Abramson said consulting firms who help companies plan moves call up Louisville on their data base, see a city population of 269,000, and strike it off their list as too small for consideration, even though the county is home to 665,000 and the metro area totals 800,000.

Some merger proponents also promise cost savings from consolidating agencies and functions. As there is no plan on the table yet, they cannot cite specific instances. More importantly, say others, one government would bring a more focused use of tax dollars. Skip Grafton said the real benefit of one police department is that citizens would get “one policy and one strategic plan for law enforcement, rather than two.” With increasingly limited resources, “we need to focus the dollars to get the maximum benefit from them.” Abramson thinks this has already happened with the 1990 merger of the city and county police departments’ narcotics units. As a single entity, Metro Narcotics is now “more effective, more productive, and our arrests are up 14 percent,” he said.

If we take the Hippocratic argument that we should first do no harm, we need to look at what constituencies would be affected—and possibly hurt—by consolidation. The thorniest problem politically is undoubtedly the small cities, most of which are located in the vocal, upper-middle-class, mostly white East End. Jefferson County has 93 of these small cities, and one in five county residents lives in them. These cities levy their own taxes and fees, collect their own garbage, and do their own street repair. The larger of them run their own fire and police departments.

In 1982 and 1983, the small city residents voted strongly for merger. But that was because the cities were left untouched by a plan to merge only Louisville and county government. If the small cities were asked to dissolve to implement a future merger plan, that plan would probably lose a lot of well-connected votes.

The small cities offer their residents two things: identity and services. Cities such as Jeffersontown and Middletown (both founded in 1797, just 17 years after Louisville) are communities with strong personalities and long histories. Residents are loath to give these up. As for services, proponents of a merged form of government have not explained to the small cities’ mayors how one government can maintain the service level that the cities now have, especially without new taxes. In the small city of Shively, Mayor Jim Jenkins said that most residents “feel like if they were part of Jefferson County, they would have less services and the costs would not be significantly lower.”

Anchorage’s Peyton Hoge argues that small city residents don’t get much for their county tax dollars as it is. They are willing to pay additional city taxes because they get something for that money—including responsiveness. Both Hoge and Mayor Arthur Draut of St. Matthews maintain that their city police departments have a much quicker response time than the county police. Perhaps more importantly, small city residents don’t have to go far to voice a complaint to their representatives. The cities’ councils and mayors “are awfully close to the people, and if they don’t provide services, they hear about it,” Hoge said.

Even the smallest cities value their independence. In Norbourne Estates, which comprises 176 homes, part-time Mayor Tommy Elliott is angry at the county’s shrugging response to his request for more help in enforcing the county street-parking law. If Norbourne were a Louisville city neighborhood or part of a metro government, Elliott would have no recourse other than to write his alderman. But since Norbourne Estates is a city, Elliott can take action to solve the enforcement problem. What his city has done is to collect for itself the insurance tax that currently goes to the county. The $10,000 to $13,000 Elliott expects this tax to bring in will probably be spent on hiring off-duty county police officers to patrol Norbourne streets. Like other small-city mayors, Elliott is not opposed to the city and county governments merging. But as for asking Norbourne Estates to dissolve, “We don’t see what we have to gain.”

Ben Richmond, president and CEO of the Urban League in Louisville, said Louisville’s inner city and mostly black West End worry that merger means blacks in Louisville will lose political clout. Today blacks have four “safe” seats on the board of aldermen, and one of the three county commissioners (Darryl Owens) is also black. In the city of Louisville, blacks now make up 30 percent of the population. Countywide, that number drops to 17 percent. Under reorganization, their clout would be diluted and their representatives would naturally have a smaller voice in a larger government.

Bill Stone of Louisville Plate Glass believes merged government is so important that if compromising with the black community is what it takes to get their agreement, compromise should be made. If the black community demands a disproportionate amount of representation on any metro government council, he said, then it should be given that concession. That may not be enough: a member of the merger charter commission in 1982 and 1983 said that the commission gave one of its black members every concession he asked for and then watched him go out and campaign against the final plan. Of course, merger could pass in Jefferson County without the black vote. But that would be politically unpalatable and is unlikely.

If Louisville’s blacks are afraid of losing representation, the middle-class white southwest seems almost afraid of too much representation. Here most residents live in the unincorporated county, where they don’t receive many services and don’t seem to want them. Their primary fear is that merger will mean higher taxes.

There are other hurdles, too. To take just one example, the Louisville fire department is all-professional, while the county’s 21 departments are staffed by a mixture of professional and volunteer firemen. Merging the city and county departments would be almost impossible today, and turning the largely volunteer county forces into all-professional departments would be prohibitively expensive. Under merger, city and county police unions would have to be brought in line with each other, as would city and county civil service unions. The immediate effect of merger would likely be an increase in the cost of these employees. This is one of Darryl Owens’ arguments for the status quo.

With so many different constituencies likely to lose things they now have and want, what does Jefferson County have to gain by consolidation? The continued and improved health of downtown, according to Joe Corradino, former chairman of the merger charter commission in 1983. “Unless the city and county get together, the fiscal condition of these two governments 10 to 20 years from now will be threatened.” The city budget is really the one that’s threatened, as all the growth in greater Louisville is in the county. Corradino is especially concerned that Louisville’s downtown will decay as taxpayers continue to move farther out into Jefferson County (and beyond). “Any decentsized city with a core that hasn’t remained vibrant over time will have tremendous budget problems.” With one budget, the merged government could draw from a larger pool of tax dollars and redistribute them over a wider area—spending some of affluent St. Matthews’ monies on downtown, for example.

There is more than civic-minded charity to the argument for merger, according to University of Louisville urban policy professor Hank Savitch. He points out that suburban residents have a pocketbook interest in the health of downtown. His work has shown that while there are wealthy suburbs surrounding troubled urban centers, in general, “suburbs do better when central cities do well. The areas that are in deepest trouble in America are areas that have seen their central cities go down the chute.”

Regardless of how one comes down on this issue, much community feeling can be salvaged if this debate is properly organized. There was a perception in 1982 and 1983 that the merger plans were “being rammed down people’s throats,” said Sheryl G. Snyder, who served as legal advisor to the merger charter commission at the time and supported city/county government reorganization. Businessman Woodford Porter, Sr., agreed. Though concerned about diluted representation for the West End (Porter is black), he, too, was a merger proponent in 1982. After the plan was defeated that fall. Porter felt it shouldn’t have been immediately proposed again and so withdrew from the debate in 1985. The plan failed both times, he said, because “large portions of the community felt they didn’t have any input.”

This spring, a government reform steering committee was named by the county judge, the mayor, the board of aldermen president, and a representative county commissioner. This steering committee of 16 is nominating a full committee that will be empowered to draft a better government proposal. The mayor and county judge have promised that the committee will be broad-based and will have the authority to present whatever reform plan it determines is best. Merger proponents and opponents agree: if the committee does not have the freedom to draft its own plan, merger cannot be sold to the county and a merger referendum will fail. The committee may find that the best plan is not a sweeping reorganization, but a gradual, de facto merger of certain services. This is ahead) happening. While the city and county fire departments may never become one (and probably shouldn’t), the county departments as a group are looking at standardizing response times, pay scales, and benefits and are discussing joint buying agreements that will save them all money. The small cities may never willingly give up their own police forces with their two-minute response times, but some city and county police units (among them Crimes Against Children and Metro Narcotics) have been consolidated, apparently successfully, and there may be others to follow.

The city and county compact that now exists seems to be working, and Jefferson County may be well advised to renew it. The compact, passed in 1986 after the merger fights and subsequent annexation wars, did several things. It resolved a major dispute between Louisville and the county over the distribution of occupational tax revenues. It effectively froze all city boundaries, putting on hold the annexation disputes. It also merged several city and county agencies, among them the Planning Commission and Economic Development. Renewing the compact before it expires in 1998 will not be an easy job, but it will certainly be easier than negotiating a merger of governments.

Louisville alderman Tom Owen said that what he would like to see is merger by default. “We’ve got a lot of merged functions [already],” he said. Slowly, perhaps other services or departments could be consolidated (he did not say which ones). This suggestion has many advantages. It spreads out the costs of merger over time. It leaves the small cities to govern their own local affairs, as their residents want them to do, and it is not controversial or divisive, which is what even a successful merger campaign will be. Everyone I interviewed who was involved in the 1982 and 1983 reorganization attempts agreed that it ended up being a bitter fight. The net effect was to divide this community, rather than to bring it together. It would be a pity to see that happen again.

Merger of some services would not give Jefferson County the single executive and pool of tax money some civic leaders want, and it would not solve all annexation disputes. But there is a strength in having several competing voices, rather than one. The current debate in Louisville over where to build a new bridge across the Ohio River is a case in point. With a merged government, the eastern county location probably would have been given the nod and Mayor Abramson’s forceful arguments for a downtown location might never have been made.

Of more concern than higher taxes, and even more than the threat of losing old communities such as Middletown, a unified city and county government could become so monolithic that “one vision” would overwhelm all others. Fortunately, as the failure of prior force-fed merger attempts has shown, local feeling runs high throughout Jefferson County. That means change here cannot come without real consensus—which is all a small “r” republican can ask for.