With the Nov. 8 election less than a month away, allegations of self-dealing, fiscal malfeasance and character assassination are everywhere in the race to be Louisville’s next mayor.
“Local politics is a blood sport,” Louisville Mayor Tom Bickers told the Daily Times. The current campaign season has been difficult for Bickers, who has served as Louisville’s mayor since 2010.
Bickers oversaw the August 2021 Wolfstock Festival, conceptualizing it as a way to promote the city and area’s non-profit organizations. The music festival, widely recognized as unsuccessful, has become a major point of contention between Bickers and supporters of his opponent, current Louisville Vice Mayor Jill Robinson Pugh.
Postponed twice due to the pandemic, the festival moved forward, but its revenue was estimated at $191,636, as of May 2022. The amended 2022 budget for festival revenue was $300,000, a difference of $108,364 dollars
Through May 2022, Louisville’s cumulative festival and community event expenditures totaled $955,841.
Pugh and other candidates for the Louisville office say the process and fallout from the festival demonstrate Bickers’ lack of transparency.
“I’ve been frustrated with the way we’ve been spending,” he told the Daily Times.
By August, Pugh said, Bickers told Louisville’s board of mayor and aldermen that preparations for the festival were “going very well.” But in August, they were reported to have lost $100,000. A detailed accounting of the festival’s spending was not immediately available, he added, although the city’s financial reporting records are accessible on its website. He noted that he obtained information about the festival’s finances after requesting it from the town’s accountant.
However, for Bickers, it was necessary to continue with the festival. He says the city would have suffered worse losses had it not agreed to move forward with Wolfstock.
“There was no legal basis to cancel the festival,” Bickers said in August 2021. In a statement, he noted that some vendors refused to refund money during previous postponements, but that the city had arranged that these vendors credit payments towards a rescheduled date. Cancellation would also have meant a refund of all tickets.
A letter to the editor published in The Daily Times specifically speculates that there is uncertainty about whether funds for the festival “went into the mayor’s pockets.” Bickers said these claims are not only unfounded, but very offensive, both to him and to his family and friends.
“It shouldn’t be like this,” he said. “All you have to do is look at the balance sheets.”
At issue, he said, are funds from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, a federal stimulus package intended to help deal with pandemic-induced financial strain. Bickers used money from the plan to help recoup the city’s losses from the festival. It noted that it was acting in accordance with the US Treasury Department’s final rule for the state and local tax recovery fund program.
This money was subject to restrictions. It could only be used for purposes such as offsetting negative impacts on the economic community and losses of local governments.
“The only vehicle I knew was to move forward (with Wolfstock) and the availability of these COVID funds designed to help cities in the pandemic situation was a way to do that and protect the city’s day-to-day operating funds.”, he commented
Personally, he said, he wanted to make sure the nonprofits that volunteered for the festival were treated fairly. Several non-profit organizations contributed to Wolfstock on the understanding that they would receive a donation from their profits. To that end, Bickers wrote several personal checks to nonprofits participating in the festival, including the United Way of Blount County, to compensate them for the lack of a donation from the festival’s proceeds.
“When it ended, and it was disappointing, I was concerned that there were a dozen nonprofits involved. I didn’t want them to get dragged into anything, so I personally paid them what they were owed.” he said.
Bickers acknowledged the difficulty of campaigning in a divided environment. He thought his 12 years as mayor of Louisville would be enough to qualify as an unpaid position. But at a certain point, he said, “you have to stand up to the bullies.”
“Alcohol, Playgrounds and Louisville’s Future”
An earlier Daily Times report says the 2010 mayoral race was also contentious, with law enforcement called to intervene at town meetings, vandalism of campaign materials and an intense war of words . In that race, Bickers said, longtime Louisville resident John Loope recruited him to run. Now Loope, a current alderman candidate, is supporting Pugh for mayor.
Loope told the Daily Times that he has become disillusioned with Bickers’ leadership. Wolfstock is a part of that, he said.
“The loss of 35% of the town’s heritage, that is important”, he explained, but there are other issues that also concern him.
Loope said building a playground in Louisville was not a priority for Bickers. Prolonged delays in construction have deprived children and their families of the opportunity to play near their homes, and a recent agreement to build the playground upset Loope, who called the its political timing and its suspicious scope.
“I think people are ready for a change,” he said. “Louisville is the best place,” he said, and he aims to preserve his slower pace of life as a councilman.
In a conversation with The Daily Times, Bickers also noted the importance of a playground for the city, saying the recent move toward a playground is a source of great pride for him. He also pointed to the city’s recurring budget surpluses, commenting that they show the city thrived under his leadership, despite Wolfstock’s failure.
Since his election a dozen years ago, Bickers has twice run for his seat unopposed. Pugh is his first opponent as a starter. He claims that Bickers’ vision of the city conflicts with that of its residents.
Pugh disputed the idea that Louisville should embrace festivals similar to Wolfstock in the future; the quiet city life is a strong selling point, he said. Alcohol sales remain a specific point of difference between her and Bickers.
For Pugh, alcohol sales and efforts to enable them at events, including festivals, put people at greater risk of encountering drunk drivers.
Finally, Pugh said, “This city belongs to the people of Louisville.” Bickers offered a similar sentiment. He noted, “I’ve always believed in giving the people of Louisville a chance to decide.”