One city's experiment in merging governments

By all accounts, it was an unusual place to sign a legislative bill--on a table set up in the middle of Louisville's busy Sixth Street.

But nobody missed the symbolism. On one side of the street is the Jefferson County Courthouse. On the other is City Hall. The bill, signed by Gov. John Y. Brown March 4, sets in motion a plan to merge the two often-competing bodies that inhabit these majestic buildings.

It's one of a handful of such plans for municipal reorganization in America's urban areas. Many cities consist of a fairly compact core city surrounded by a large suburban ring. The result: duplication of services, as the suburbs set up bureaucratic systems paralleling those of parent cities.

Indianapolis, Nashville, and Lexington, Ky.--nearby cities that Louisville would like to emulate--recently have consolidated their governments, effectively extending what was a municipal administration into a countywide authority.

But while the logic of consolidation is obvious, it frequently meets insurmountable resistance (as it has in Boston) from local governments afraid of being swamped by the problems of the central city.

For at least 25 years, observers say, that kind of resistance has characterized Louisville. Recently, however, there has arisen what one government official calls ''a fragile and unique coalition'' in favor of the recently signed government option (GO) bill. The leadership has come from both sides of Sixth Street: from the Democratic mayor, Harvey I. Sloane, and the Republican chief executive of the county, Judge Mitch McConnell.

Since the mayor's election last November, the two have worked side by side to push the measure through the state Legislature--even though the reorganization will mean that one of their offices in effect will disappear. Also on their side: the Chamber of Commerce, the trade unions, and (after they were promised taxing autonomy) many of the county's 89 towns.

The bill allows the mayor and the county chief executive to set up a 26 -member commission that will place a plan for consolidation before the voters next November. In recent interviews with the Monitor, both men said they based their support for the bill on two things:

* The desire for more efficient government--for what Judge McConnell calls ''a structure that provides accountability.'' He says he wants a system that delivers under one umbrella the social, safety, and recreational services now duplicated on each side of Sixth Street.

* The need for the 750,000 people in the greater Louisville area to speak with one voice in attracting new job-creating businesses. ''Symbolically,'' says Mayor Sloane, ''it's very important to have the community viewed as one that is moving together.'' The two governing bodies currently compete for economic development dollars.

Judge McConnell envisions a final plan that will provide ''a strong-mayor form of government,'' as well as a council of perhaps 11 members. He hopes for a three-year transition period, with the new plan taking effect when his and the mayor's terms end in 1985.

The plan has opponents, however. Some see it as a veiled attempt to raise suburban taxes; others fear a dilution of power, especially among the 28 percent of Louisville's population that is black. Still others see analogies between this merger and one in 1975, when the city and county schools merged. Within weeks of that consolidation, a federal judge ordered busing to desegrate the system--a decision that still generates heated controversy, and which some fear may poison the waters for the government merger.

But most agree that the plan is not a political power play by either the mayor or the judge, both of whom may seek higher offices in 1985.

''Whose particular political advantage it serves at this time is irrelevant, '' says Judge McConnell. Mayor Sloane agrees, saying that the plan has been his priority because ''I think it's the single most important thing that can happen (to Louisville) in the next decade.''

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