A 10-Year Perspective of the Merger of Louisville and Jefferson County, KY

October 2013 / Abell-Supported Research / Community Development

The Louisville metro vaults from 65th to 18th largest city in the nation.

Over the past 50 years, the idea of merging a city with its neighboring or surrounding county has been contemplated in many American cities, voted upon in a few, and enacted in even fewer. The most prominent American mergers have been Jacksonville, FL; Indianapolis, IN; Nashville, TN; and Lexington, KY. Other cities—including Pittsburgh, PA and Memphis, TN—have attempted mergers, but failed at various stages in the process. City/county consolidation has been a controversial topic, with advocates and opponents pointing to different metrics that support their expectations for the consequences of a merger. Louisville, KY, which merged with Jefferson County on January 1st, 2003, is the most recent example of a city/county consolidation executed by a major American city. This report examines how Louisville Metro has performed over the past decade since the merger took effect by analyzing the city’s economy, population, government spending and efficiency, and public opinion about the merger.

In the late 1990s, business and political leaders came together in an attempt to address some of the issues facing the Louisville region, including a long declining population and tax base, escalating government spending, and multiple economic development organizations fighting to recruit the same businesses (often to the detriment of the greater Louisville region at large). These leaders determined that a merger of the Louisville and Jefferson County governments was in the best interests of the region, despite the contentious nature of merger debates. Proponents, after jumping through legal hoops in the state capital, managed to get a referendum scheduled for November 2000. A heated debate ensued, with opponents’ arguments that included fears of rising taxes, an unwieldy bureaucracy, and a loss of political strength for African-Americans. In the end, the proponents’ arguments that a merger would increase government efficiency, help spur economic development, and create psychological benefits based on being a larger city (particularly when reminded that the merged Lexington-Fayette Urban County, KY, had surpassed Louisville in the 2000 census as the largest city in the state), persuaded voters to support merging the city and county by more than 24,000 votes, 54 percent in favor and 46 percent opposed.

In the decade since the merger took effect, Louisville Metro has seen mixed results. The population has increased beyond the combined populations of the two former jurisdictions, though the bulk of the growth has occurred outside the old city limits. Employment is down slightly, though most of the jobs lost have been in manufacturing while the jobs that replaced them have been in professional and information sectors. The cost of government has not increased and fewer employees have been able to maintain services, and the bureaucracy is easier to navigate. And most importantly, a new sense of possibility has developed in the city, as residents and business leaders look toward a brighter future.