Overnight, Louisville, Kentucky went from being the nation’s 67th-largest city to the 16thlargest in 2003. Citizens wanted to put Louisville on the map, so the majority voted in favor of merging its city and county governments, said Joe Reagan, president and CEO of the St. Louis Regional Chamber.
“Louisville wanted to be a major metropolitan area,” Reagan said, “and it was tired of having its rear end kicked by folks like Richard Lugar (former mayor of Indianapolis) and the mayors of Nashville, who had gotten their act together 30 or 40 years before and had really become strong competitors in attracting talent, attracting businesses and attracting jobs.”
Reagan was one of several regional leaders who spoke about reuniting St. Louis city and county governments at a Saint Louis University School of Law symposium on Feb. 29.
Since St. Louis city and county split governments in 1876, the conversation to reunite the region has periodically resurfaced. The new initiative Better Together hopes to return the discussion to center stage. Sponsored by Missouri Council for a Better Economy, the initiative aims to study various aspects of the region’s governments and how a merger would affect them.
The day-long SLU Law symposium covered everything from the history of the governments’ separation to examples of other cities that have successfully merged.
Former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, the keynote speaker, served as mayor when Indianapolis consolidated its city and county governments in 1970. Lugar said the Indianapolis merger attracted more jobs and made it easier to move ahead with capital projects, such as building major sports facilities.
As with Indianapolis, Reagan said that Louisville’s merger reversed the city’s brain drain and population decline. In 2012, Louisville topped the list of metro areas luring and retaining college-educated residents ages 25 to 39, he said, knocking Portland off as the perennial number one, according to a Portland State University study.
The sponsoring nonprofit for Better Together is largely funded by Rex Sinquefield, billionaire financier and political investor. A strong believer in small government and free markets, Sinquefield led the latest unsuccessful initiative to get rid of the city’s earning tax, which makes up one-third of the city’s revenue.
Sinquefield proposes to raise sales tax in place of the earnings tax. Studies show that raising sales tax disproportionately affects impoverished families compared to the wealthy.
At the symposium, St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura O. Jones openly expressed her view that the merger is a “veiled attempt” to eliminate the city’s earning’s tax. However, she said her official position on a merger is “neutral.”
Fragmentation and investment
James H. Buford, the former CEO and president of Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis for almost three decades, is a board member with Better Together. He took a moment to speak on the community’s criticism and skepticism of the initiative.
Buford said, “People ask me, ‘Why are you involved? All those rich white folks put their money together to come up with a plan to merge the city and county and get rid of the municipalities.’ And I say, ‘I don’t know about that.’”
Buford said he firmly believes that a merger must happen.
“My main concern is that people get jobs,” Buford said. “I’m here to represent African-American people. I want to be at the table. I’m not going to let this process get compromised.”
Buford sits on the initiative’s public finance committee, which recently released its research findings on the region’s financial structures. He said the results shine a light on a “serious inequality” in the region.
“I look at our fragmented region,” he said, “and I see many of these small communities, a number of which were created to foster segregation.”
Racial segregation is at the heart of why the city and county governments separated in the first place, said Anders Walker, SLU Law professor and co-director of the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Law. It dates back to the Civil War, when area residents were divided on the issue of slavery.
The Radical Republicans didn’t believe President Abraham Lincoln went far enough in emancipation, leaving Missouri as one of the few states that did not free slaves, Walker said. St. Louis County became the bastion of radical control. St. Louis city became a bastion of moderate Republicans – those who agreed with the Union but were not willing to push for immediate emancipation in Missouri.
To punish the moderates, the radicals used the police board to exercise influence over St. Louis city. Police got kickbacks from the city’s entertainment districts, which soared when prostitution was legalized in 1870. The county also collected excessive taxes on the city and controlled how those revenues were spent. City residents were tired of being exploited by the county, he said, which led to the governments’ separation in 1876.
The fragmentation between city and county has bloated over the years until St. Louis County itself is now divided into 91 municipalities and nine unincorporated areas of wildly varying size and resources.
The Better Together finance study found that many North St. Louis County municipalities with less than 5,000 people and high poverty rates do not have any debt. For an individual, no debt is typically a good thing, Buford said. However, for a city, that often means that the small government does not have access to the capital market and has no means of funding capital improvements.
“Fragmentation is a structural impediment to community reinvestment,” Buford said. “You can’t continue to live in a community where you don’t have the ability to invest back into your community. Everyone should be on the level playing field.”