A group known as Better Together is recommending an end to the “Great Divorce” between St. Louis and St. Louis County — a move that would dramatically change how the region’s residents are represented and how they receive services. Better Together is proposing an ambitious plan that would be decided through a statewide vote.
Proponents contend it will scrape away layers of local government that has been holding the St. Louis region back. Opponents believe the plan will create an unwieldy and large centralized government that could be implemented against the will of city and county residents.
Better Together, which formed in 2013 to study the possibility of a city-county merger, released its recommended proposal on Monday, January 28. It would create a “metro government” where current St. Louis and St. Louis County residents would elect a mayor, assessor and prosecutor, as well as a 33-person council. The City of St. Louis’ government would effectively cease to exist, meaning many of its offices — like recorder of deeds or license collector — would be absorbed into appointee-run departments in St. Louis County.
St. Louis County’s cities and their elected officials would still exist, but they would lose most of their ability to levy sales taxes. Those "municipal districts" would not be able to have a police department or a municipal court, as the new metro government would be responsible for both. And the metro government would also have a big say over how developmental incentives, like tax increment financing, are handed out.
Municipal officials could still pass local laws as long as they didn’t conflict with broader ones and would control city services such as trash collection and parks and recreation.
The plan does not affect fire-protection or school districts.
If the plan gets approved, elections for St. Louis and St. Louis County-based offices would be suspended after 2021 begins. The 33-person council would be elected in 2022. Whoever is St. Louis County’s executive, prosecutor and assessor after 2021 would serve as the metro city’s mayor, prosecutor and assessor from 2023 to the beginning of 2025.
“So we’re not having political campaigns in the midst of starting a whole new political structure,” said Dave Leipholtz, Better Together’s director of community studies.
Proponents are planning to circulate an initiative petition to have the entire state vote on the plan during the 2020 election cycle. Prior attempts to merge St. Louis and St. Louis County through what’s been known historically as the Board of Freeholders process were voted on only by city and county residents — and didn’t pass.
Better Together officials said their plan needs to change Missouri’s Constitution — especially when it comes to merging police departments and courts.
The Municipal League of Metro St. Louis is backing a plan to create a Board of Freeholders to study the issue of a city-county merger, which could present a reorganization plan that would only be decided on by city and county voters.
The decision to embark on a statewide vote, rather than a local one, has elicited bipartisan scorn.
“If it’s going to be a vote, shouldn’t it be the city and county?” said state Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka.
Better Together’s proposal prompted some in Jefferson City to consider ways to combat the proposal — including placing a corresponding initiative on the 2020 ballot requiring a merger to have approval from city and county voters. Leipholtz said his group considered adding a clause where the plan only went into effect if it passed in the city and county but that would run into constitutional issues.
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger and St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson have said they think a statewide vote is necessary. Since Stenger and Krewson would appoint the majority of a Board of Freeholders, it’s unclear how their opinion would affect the Muni League’s process.
Better Together Executive Director Nancy Rice said she would have preferred that the plan be decided locally. But after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson exposed problems with the region’s policing and municipal courts, she said it was necessary to submit a more ambitious plan.
“I can’t speak for everyone, but when I saw what was going on in the municipalities in the courts and with some of the police, I couldn’t look away,” Rice said. “So I thought it should be a city-and-county vote. All right? But when I had to weigh the value of reforming our police and courts against the value of having been wrong with what I believed a couple of years ago, I came down on the side of ‘We have to reform police and courts.’”
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Edited for length and reprinted with permission from news.stlpublicradio.org.