The following is the final part of a three-part series examining the debate over a potential merger between St. Louis City and St. Louis County. Part One addressed the current political debate surrounding the issue, Part Two addressed the history and racial implications of the original split.
Say a large corporate franchise saw the great economic resources the St. Louis region has to offer, and wanted to open up several locations–Dunkin’ Donuts, for example. This large chain would have a straightforward time selling pastries and styrofoam cups of coffee in cities like Indianapolis, Nashville, or Louisville. It would be a fairly streamlined process: a cohesive set of zoning laws, building ordinances, and business licensing processes. A business might think this could be accomplished with similar ease in St. Louis. However, this is not the case.
“You might have to deal with 18 different municipalities and 18 different zoning rules and 18 different processes for opening a building,” says Alex Ihnen of nextSTL.com. “Whereas if you go to Indianapolis or Nashville or Louisville–if you want to open 18 stores, it’s, ‘Ok, here’s the process.’ In some ways we don’t know what we’re missing out on.” Forfeited business opportunities are just one of the detrimental effects of a fragmented region. While the city and county have a history of collaboration, which is often overlooked, our current municipal structure hinders long-term economic growth.
The current municipality structure of St. Louis City and County does encompass much of what people love about the city: a small-town feel in a larger metropolitan area, accessible government, and a sense of community. However, having tightly delineated municipal lines also enforces boundaries of race and economic status, as we explored in our previous piece, and creates a system where individual governments compete with each other for revenue, rather than other metropolitan areas. While some wealthier towns have managed to create a well-managed system within their own borders, many local municipalities struggle to fund their yearly budgets. For St. Louis, long-term economic growth and solutions lie in the art of collaboration, in some fashion.
While merging the city and the county could open up new solutions to our civic problems, it cannot amend issues of class or segregation on its own. “It’s no longer correct to talk about poor city, rich county,” says Dr. Terrence Jones, professor of urban studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of the book “Fragmented By Design: Why St. Louis Has So Many Governments.” Trends show young professionals and empty nesters moving into city neighborhoods, and suburbanized poverty increasingly affects areas of the county. While poverty knows no bounds, the city is still starkly divided by race and class, with lines often drawn by municipality. Within these conflicts lies a discussion St. Louisans have yet to fully address: what kind of a city do we want to be? What are the negative effects of clinging to a small-town ideal? Is it worth it to maintain that environment, along with the structural racism that built our current urban model? Neighborhoods of character are charming, but are these sentiments the proper basis for a city’s urban and governmental infrastructure?
While the city and county have consistently voted against a formal merger, collaboration has still occurred in several instances. Many government initiatives and beloved St. Louis institutions have either merged, or receive fiscal support from both St. Louis City and County: the St. Louis Zoo, the upcoming Arch grounds renovation, the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, and the Saint Louis Science Center, to name a few. Currently, these agencies unite kernels of the city and county, without a merger.
“There is more cooperation between St. Louis City and County than you might think,” says Dr. Jones. “Cooperation is absolutely necessary, but a merger isn’t the only way to do that … removing municipalities is not immediately going to create an ‘all in this together’ mentality.” In the spring of 2013, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and Mayor Slay created the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, a collaborative agency that fosters economic growth in the region. This united the economic development teams in the city and county. The team then created a long-term plan to amend economic difficulties and spur growth not in only the city or the county, but in the region as a whole. Previously the city and county development teams were not only separate, but in competition with one another.
Past initiatives to invest in the region as a whole by enriching the city have failed to affect surrounding municipalities. Efforts to create jobs by developing homegrown, monumental infrastructure in the city have not succeeded in creating economic growth across the region as a whole. As the mass exodus from the city began in the 1970’s, St. Louis City voted to demolish the Gateway Mall and build a sports stadium. Around 80,000 residents left in the 1980’s, and taxpayer money was spent to build a hockey arena. Another 70,000 left in the 1990’s, and the city voted to use public funds to build a football stadium. Currently, $380 million is being spent to complete the Arch grounds renovation, a portion of which comes from taxpayers. This, however, does not address the regional problems that lead to economic decline.
“40% of people in North St. Louis don’t have access to a car,” says Alex Ihnen. “But we’re not building extra bus lines or a light rail line, or even bike trails–poorer people ride bikes more often than college hipsters. It’s a necessary means of transportation for poorer communities.” He questions the impact of building large attractions with taxpayer money. “Did a million more people come? Were there more jobs? Did people benefit? Could the people who need those jobs get to the jobs? When more and more of our poor communities live in Ferguson, you’re not working at a hotel in Downtown St. Louis. There might be a bus route–probably takes an hour and a half each way. That’s not a solution.”
A formal merger has been proposed as a solution to the region’s fragmentation multiple times following the original split in 1876, and each time it has been defeated. While the city and county have made many successful efforts at collaboration, many municipal agencies, such as the public health and judicial systems, remain highly disjointed across the city-county divide. As outlined by the Missouri Constitution, two of the most likely scenarios regarding a merger would create either one large, unified government encompassing the city and the county, therefore abolishing all municipalities, or would allow the city to re-enter the county as the 91st municipality.
Any potential merger scenario requires a vote of the people, and both situations would require collapsing dual services, departments, court systems, government leadership, and more, which would be a very complicated process. Merging some institutions could result in higher taxes for the county–for example, the judicial system costs more to operate in the city than in the county, which would have to absorb the higher cost. While the city and county inevitably depend upon each other, they share a limited sense of mutual responsibility to one another. “It’s not going to happen,” Dr. Jones says of a merger. “Not only at the moment, but in the foreseeable future, it clearly would not get majority support in St. Louis County.”
Although the potential impact of a merger on St. Louis is unknown, other cities have gone through comparable transitions. “Each one of those instances has its own story, and each one of those metropolitan areas is considerably smaller than St. Louis,” says Dr. Jones. Currently, the city of St. Louis performs many of the functions of a county within its own boundaries, so a city-county merger would essentially be a merger of two counties–an unprecedented move. And if the city were to re-enter the county as a municipality, it might lose some of its authority in existing regional partnerships, such as the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD.) As another municipality, albeit the most populous one, St. Louis City would have a more difficult time justifying why its mayor should continue to appoint half of MSD’s Board of Trustees. Any potential merger scenario would raise a number of complicated issues, and there are many unknowns.
Proponents of the municipality structure argue that it allows residents to feel as though they live in a small town, with urban amenities provided by St. Louis City, a short drive away. However, this hides the fact that the barriers of this fragmented model trap and conceal economic and social injustices. However, further collaboration of some kind between the city and county is necessary. While a merger wouldn’t fix issues of class and socioeconomic disparities on its own, creating a formal government alliance has the opportunity to spark innovation between two disparate entities that have had a complicated relationship of both skepticism and interdependence since the original split in 1876. St. Louis has made a choice to remain a comfortable, mid-sized city. What could its future be if we thought differently?
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