If, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, the sign of great intelligence is the ability to function while keeping two opposing ideas in mind, then Jerry Abramson is forced to demonstrate his smarts every day. As the mayor of Louisville Metro — the city born out of the merger of Louisville with Jefferson County last January — Abramson has had to join the functions and personnel of two separate governments while trying to reshape the new entity into something grander, to make the merger worthwhile.
Abramson, 57, is required to think both big and small at the same time. "Thinking big was important — it catapulted Louisville into a different sector," says Sylvia Lovely, executive director of the Kentucky League of Cities. (The merger lifted Louisville from being the 64th largest city in the country to 16th place.) "But what Jerry does especially well are the nuts and bolts, making sure all the neighborhoods still work, that services are still being delivered efficiently."
It was always a foregone conclusion that Abramson, who had served as mayor of the "old Louisville" for 13 years, would be elected to lead the new government. He used the two-year interim between voter approval of the merger referendum and his own election, last November, to prepare for the merger by meeting with constituents throughout his expanded territory and borrowing ideas from corporate executives and elsewhere for blending separate administrations.
Abramson notes that the last major municipal mergers — Indianapolis, Nashville, Jacksonville — occurred about three decades ago and offer hardly any relevant instruction. "You're talking about Remington typewriters versus state-of-the-art PCs," he says. The study of corporate mergers and acquisitions gave him better ideas about how to change institutional cultures and merge technology and communications systems. For instance, he managed to combine the city police and county sheriff departments shortly after taking office — something that Indianapolis still hasn't done 33 years after its merger with Marion County. "When you walk into the mayor's office in a traditional city, the departments, the budget and the structure are all in place," Abramson says. "When you are in the middle of creating a new city, you create the vision — you are not playing around the fringes."
Abramson was aided in his efforts by the city's flat revenues. A budget shortfall gave him cover for eliminating about 700 positions, including duplicative senior management slots. Although there is still a lot of wrangling as he tries to reconcile different union contracts and work schedules — even to get all of his trucks running on the same octane-level gas — things have gone so smoothly that Abramson was actually criticized by the local media for being overprepared for a snowstorm that ended up never hitting the city.
The fact that there's been no functional catastrophe since the two governments consolidated has led officials in other cities that are thinking about mergers — including Buffalo, Des Moines, Memphis and Cleveland — to come to Louisville to poke around and kick the tires. But local folks were expecting more from the merger than a more efficient service-delivery vehicle. The main reason why the Louisville business community spent more than $1 million supporting the merger referendum was the hope that Louisville could compete in a bigger league — not just as a larger city but also as a single entity that would be more attractive to businesses than the old city and county, which so often worked at cross purposes.
The merger itself, as yet, hasn't fostered any gargantuan deals, says Steve Higdon, president of Greater Louisville Inc., the local economic development agency. But Abramson's success at making the merger work, he says, is laying the groundwork for landing large projects that "in the past were quite difficult because of the complexity of the jurisdictions involved." The Metro Council in September approved $18 million in tax breaks for Ford Motor Co. to encourage a $550 million expansion of its two local plants. And Republic Airlines opened its headquarters and hub in Louisville this fall.
With the mayor’s ability to make decisions, "rather than jacking around with two governments and two sets of regulations," Abramson adds, "we're more effective and agile in the competitive arena."
— Alan Greenblatt
Photograph by Patrick L. Pfister