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Surrounding towns are wary; Louisville eyes metropolitan government

On its face the proposal has a ring of efficiency about it -- merging or at least consolidating services in the 89 separate cities of the Louisville metropolitan area. It conjures up a picture of stream- lined administration and dollars saved.

But a united approach to government reorganization -- and particularly to consolidation efforts -- is historically hard to come by. Small cities, used to meeting their own service needs, often don't want to risk what they see as absorption. And black residents in the larger central city often worry tht whatever political power they have gained will be diluted.

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"The biggest problem with metropolitan government is the political one of getting it adopted in the first place," says Bruce McDowell, a senior analyst with the Advisory Commission on Inter- governmental Relations. "For every four or five proposals put forth, only one makes it through and usually only after two or three tries at the polls."

Metropolitan government is the most controversial of a number of proposals up for discussion here. In the past when it has been proposed here or elsewhere around the country, small cities have won the right to opt in or out of the plan. Though technically the majority of the Louisville area's residents live outside the city's limits and could control the results of any referendum, this is not generally viewed as an effective guarantee that smaller communities' interests will be protected.

"My little town is indignant at the very thought of metropolitan government," insists Peyton hoge, the mayor of Anchorage, Ky., one of the 89 cities that would be involved in a metropolitan plan. "We've had to fend for ourselves for many years, and we can provide services to our citizens very efficiently. . . . The fact that Louisville is aiming toward bankruptcy is all that's making the movers and shakers downtown think that bigger is better."

But some argue that consolidated government may have a better chance than ever here because the sales pitch for it has shifted from one of saving dollars to the surer gain of more streamlined, accountable government.

Consolidated government has been proposed with some regularity in various parts of the country since World War II. Mr. McDowell notes that only 16 of the proposals to consolidate have succeeded.

Here in Jefferson County, Kentucky, the pros and cons of metropolitan government have been debated for nearly 25 years. While it is far from certain at this stage that officials and residents will ever embrace any such a merger, there is currently widespread support here for government reorganization of some kind. A bill to lift a state ban against such governmental change and to set up a charter commission to study reorganization possibilities is backed by the local Chamber of Commerce, as well as by city, county, and state leaders. Louisville's two major newspapers are also behind it. With this broad support, the measure appears almost sure to win the required nod in the 1982 session of the Kentucky Legislature.

"It's go -- there's no question about it," insists J. Douglas Nunn, executive director of the University of Lousville's Urban Studies Center.

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In part it is the search for greater tax equity that is pushing some in Jefferson County to reach for a change. Lousiville's tax base has been shrinking, as more citizens move to the suburbs, and its ability to provide essential services had been declining.

City residents pay property taxes to both city and county. In the process they support a number of county services which they are not eligible to receive.

"The real issue is taxes," says Alec Van Ryan, an aide to Louisville Mayor William Stansbury -- and a man who says he happens to pay $300 a year more in taxes just because he lives inside the city limits by one block.

One factor favoring consolidation, as many government and business leaders see it, is a pressing need to coordinate area economic development efforts. Both city and county have economic development offices, and in recent years more new businesses have moved to the county than to the city. "We're in the unique and terrible position of having a city and county competing for new business and new growth," insists Mr. Van Ryan.

The government headquarters for both Jefferson County and the City of Louisville are next door to one another here in the city, but, as one resident says, "They're often a world apart."

"The only real problem we have here is that we have in essence two strong municipal governments," says Robert Miller, deputy for budget policy in Jefferson County government. "Many people believe that the quality of government might improve if it were reorganized to become more accountable, unified, and modern."

"Often the idea has been sold on the basis of the savings it would bring, but tax rates usually continue to go up," observes Bruce McDowell. "Inflation and higher levels of service usually overwhelm the savings you get from administration efficiency. Generally you spend more money, but you get better services."

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