Like the old saying goes, “A camel is a horse designed by committee.” That, of course, is unfair to the camel, since a camel is perfectly designed for the world in which it lives. A camel is a wonderful camel. It’s just a lousy horse.
That’s the problem with the plan to unify St. Louis city and county by the group Better Together. A lot people wanted a horse, and they got a camel. But then again, maybe it’s a platypus.
A lot of people, this being St. Louis, are fine with things just the way they are, a dying city surrounded by a stagnant and slowly shrinking county where 88 different towns and cities elbow each other out of the way like elementary school cafeteria kids going for the last slice of pizza.
Others wanted the city merely to re-enter the county as the 89th city, which would have saved a few bucks, since the city could eliminate some county positions like assessor, recorder of deeds, and sheriff. The build-a-wall types in the county didn’t like that either because of the “Eek, Negroes!” factor.
But still others wanted the blow the entire thing up, nuke the city and every town in the county and merge them together in a unigov system, creating one huge city sprawling from Wildwood to the Mississippi riverfront.
In the end, like a wonky all-you-can-eat buffet, everybody got a little something out of Better Together’s closed-door sessions. You might have figured that libertarian mega-millionaire Rex Sinquefield, who funded the Better Together project, would have wanted to eliminate all government and outsource everything to Halliburton or Blackwater. But the academics, business executives, and community leaders who hammered out the plan claim Sinquefield kept his inner Ayn Rand to himself.
So what did we get?
The city and county would be combined into a new “metro city” with a 1.3 million population. The new St. Louis would be the nation’s ninth biggest city.
Every police department in the city and county would be dissolved. The metro city would have one police department of around 3,700 people.
The metro city would be run by a mayor and 33-member metro council. The seat of government would be in downtown’s City Hall.
The metro city would be responsible for all police, economic development, courts, prosecutors, and taxes (except for property taxes).
All 88 towns in St. Louis county would continue to exist. They would be known as “municipal districts.” Each town/municipal district would still elect its own mayor and city council. The municipal districts would be in charge of fire protection, EMS service, parks, trash collection, and property taxes. Voters in the municipal districts would elect their own local governments, as well as voting for the metro city mayor and council members.
Current school districts would continue to exist without any change.
Better Together says a statewide vote would be necessary because the state controls municipal courts (which would be eliminated) and requires all towns over 400 to have police departments (which they would no longer have).
Some 160,000 petition signatures from around the state would be necessary to get a constitutional amendment on the November 2020 ballot. If the constitutional amendment passed, the new metro city of St. Louis would come into existence on January 1, 2023.
Supporters of the plan have three primary selling points.
The first is that St. Louis currently has a national reputation somewhere between a toxic waste dump and a Donald Trump casino. The Ferguson unrest, losing air service, losing an NFL team with a nasty departing letter from the owner saying St. Louis is dead, corporate departures, shrinking population, high crime, racism, struggling schools, bombed-out neighborhoods, fragmentation, and job losses have left the St. Louis region largely irrelevant to the national conversation about anything. A merger might let the rest of the country know, “Hey, we’re big again. Pay attention!”
Second, a metro city of 1.3 million people would be able to deal with issues of economic development and job creation with one voice and one plan, rather than several dozen municipalities, some postage-stamp sized, poaching business from each other by passing competing tax breaks.
And third, problems with greedy municipal courts and small town cop shops using residents and passing motorists as ATMs would be eliminated by blowing up both the muni courts and the county’s 55 different police departments, 75 percent of which aren’t accredited. Better Together points out this is one of the things the Ferguson Commission Report wanted.
But pushback has already started. The St. Louis County Municipal League, which represents the county towns, is against it. Instead, the Municipal League wants to use a little-known part of the Missouri Constitution to set up a commission to study any merger plan. They want to gather 20,000 petition signatures to force city Mayor Lyda Krewson and County Executive Steve Stenger to appoint a so-called Board of Freeholders. The freeholders would study the entire issue for a year, and then issue a report.
There are plenty of legitimate objections to the Better Together proposal. The biggest one may be that the plan doesn’t do anything about the inequities between poor, struggling school districts and affluent, successful ones. Better Together claims the metro city concept will help by taking control of tax breaks and cutting back on Tax Increment Financing projects. TIFs for developers usually mean property tax exemptions, money that goes to schools. Better Together reasons that fewer TIFs will mean more money for schools.
That’s a thin promise. But the Muni League opposition to the plan doesn’t change anything, either. And given the opposition of white-flight county residents to any affiliation with the city, you’d have to be a stranger to St. Louis not to suspect that racism has more than a little to do with the opposition by many of the county’s towns to a merger.
St. Louis is dying, slowly, inexorably dying of civic sclerosis. Whatever we do, doing nothing is no longer an option.
Charles Jaco is a journalist, author, and activist. Follow him on Twitter at @charlesjaco1.