The following is Part One of a three-part series examining the debate over a potential merger between St. Louis City and St. Louis County. Part Two will address the history and racial implications of the original split, and Part Three will address what the future of our region could look like.
If you take a 20-minute drive on Hanley Road, starting in Marlborough and drive north, you’ll pass through six separate municipalities. Since St. Louis City split from St. Louis County in 1876, the county has expanded into 90 municipalities, many of which have their own court system, police department, and mayor, together serving a total population near 1 million. Combined with St. Louis City’s population of around 319,000, the region spends far more on civic services than similarly structured cities that have moved away from the municipality model. In January of 2003, Louisville chose to merge its city and county governments, as did Indianapolis in 1970. St. Louis spends $750 million more a year than Indianapolis, and $1 billion more than Louisville, for the same services. Strong advocates on both sides in St. Louis have resurrected the debate over reuniting the city with the county, and St. Louis City Mayor Slay has voiced support for the city entering the county as another municipality.
“This fantastic place is growing more slowly than the rest of the country,” says Nancy Rice, executive director of Better Together, a nonprofit conducting research on the regional implications of the current multi-municipality structure. “So you have to be pointed about it and say, ‘What are the things that are wrong?’ Our gut feeling in starting this is: if you took St. Louis City and St. Louis County and started fresh, you wouldn’t draw this many governments,” she says. “We wouldn’t be doing this if we thought everything was perfect.”
On an uncharacteristically cool July morning, Jennifer Bird, Republican candidate for St. Louis County Council, pulls open the door of a St. Louis Bread Company, clutching a briefcase bursting with papers, forms, and a laptop with a 47-slide PowerPoint presentation outlining why any sort of merger between St. Louis City and St. Louis County is a terrible idea. “The city was booming–and I mean booming,” says Bird, retelling the story of the original separation with a faintly aggrieved tone. “The city requested and chose to separate, because it did not want to support the county. No problem. That’s great. That’s your choice.” A former straight-ticket-voting Democrat, Bird has been a Republican for years now, frustrated by how both political parties wasted or improperly spent tax dollars. “When you have a larger bureaucracy, there’s more nooks and crannies in which to hide problems: waste, mismanagement, fraud, bloat,” she says.
One of Bird’s primary concerns is that a merger is intended to shift city debt onto the county–a bailout. The opening slide of her PowerPoint is a photographed drawing of Albert Einstein, white, wispy strands of hair surrounding his face, hovering over one of his more famous quotes: “A foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of the truth.” “Here’s our big question,” she says. “This whole idea of re-entry, reunification–why now? Why all of a sudden now? What’s the urgency? Is it a bailout for the city? Because that’s what I’m looking at. That’s what I see.” Since the city and the county separated, an event known as The Great Divorce, five proposals have been put forth to reunite them, the first of which appeared in 1926. Each proposal has been defeated.
Bird says that the city has $94 million more in unfunded pension liability than the county, among other deficits, and roughly a third of the population. If the city and the county merged, wouldn’t the county be agreeing to take on the city’s debts? The Missouri Constitution allows for the possibility of one unified regional government led by St. Louis City, but also proposes several other potential scenarios that preserve a multi-municipality structure. As part of its public finance study, Better Together contracted Polsinelli Law Firm to issue a legal opinion about the status of the city’s debt in the event of a merger. If the city rejoined the county as a municipality, they replied, the city would retain legal responsibility for its employees, and their pensions. The county would not assume any liability for unfunded pensions, or any other of the city’s debts. This answer, however, only addresses one of several potential merger scenarios, in which St. Louis City rejoins St. Louis County as a municipality. The memo does not address other merger scenarios spelled out in the Missouri Constitution, which could lead to a more complicated negotiation over debt.
On a muggy July morning a couple of weeks earlier, Dave Leipholtz sits at a conference table in a Clayton office building, joined by his colleagues at Better Together, Nancy Rice and Marius Johnson. Rice is a lifelong St. Louis resident who has organized campaigns that span from women’s health education to helping St. Louis recover control of its police department from the state. Johnson has also spent years working on political campaigns in St. Louis. Behind them, large windows overlook the city, a faint haze settling over the view. Better Together is currently in the process of conducting a series of community studies, and has already completed investigations into public finance, economic development, and public health. All of the findings are available on its website. “I think the discussion itself is a huge goal of ours–just to make sure that it is being had, and it’s being had in a fact-based way. Not in an emotional way,” says Leipholtz.
As to Better Together’s findings that St. Louis spends much more than cities of similar size and economic influence, Bird remains unconvinced. “Why do I have to conform? That’s their business, if it works for them. If your friend was going to jump off the Golden Gate bridge, would you do it too?” she asks. Raised in University City, she now lives in the quiet middle-class suburb of Crestwood–her father grew up in East St. Louis, and told her stories about neighbors who had to cover their roof in tar paper because they couldn’t afford nails. “There was no ‘finding yourself,” says Bird. “If you woke up this morning and pulled your pants on, you’ve found yourself.”
While Better Together has assembled a group of supporters, Bird questions its goals for St. Louis. “This whole idea of Better Together–first of all, it’s a statement. It’s not a question. It’s disingenuous of you to say you’re investigating something when your title is making a statement, rather than asking. I would believe you a little more if you said, ‘Better Together?’ With a question mark after it. It’s a PR campaign that’s putting this cloud over the city, implying that we’re acting as if we’re not better together,” she says. “What I’m hearing from Better Together is that people are calling for this. What people? I watch the news. Where’s the peep? I think you’re creating something that isn’t there.” Today she wears multi-colored cheater glasses on her head and bright green pants, which she received for Mother’s Day five years ago. “Put it to a vote of the people–only the people of St. Louis City and St. Louis County. Let them decide.”
Looking closely at Better Together’s funding, traceable through its website, its mission becomes more complicated. The organization is sponsored by the Missouri Council for a Better Economy (MCBE), which lists job growth and cost savings as top reasons to support a city-county unification. MCBE is primarily funded by wealthy local citizen and former financial executive Rex Sinquefield, who contributes heavily to political candidates and initiatives in Missouri. In October 2014, he contributed $750,000 to a Republican candidate named Catherine Hanaway, who had raised only about $68,000 in the months leading up to his contribution. Nancy Rice of Better Together has worked with Sinquefield in the past, and currently serves as the spokesperson for the Missouri Council for a Better Economy.
Alex Ihnen of nextSTL.com, an online news source for a variety of civic issues and current events in St. Louis, has been looking at this data for a long time and sees a compelling argument for some sort of consolidation. “Having these things so segregated, it allows people to act like it’s somewhere else,” he says of the current municipal structure. He pauses for a moment before taking a sip of coffee at Northwest Coffee Roasters on Laclede Avenue.
At times, the large number of municipalities in St. Louis can hide problems even more insidiously than an overarching government structure. “What you see highlighted by Ferguson is that we’re tucking our problems away in different places, and there’s no collective ownership. I’ve just been very dismayed and saddened by the whole thing,” he says, referring to the events in the county suburb, which has erupted in protests and police violence following the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was shot by a white police officer.
“Getting rid of municipal boundaries wouldn’t get rid of the problems. It’s not like everyone’s going to become wealthy in Ferguson–but it opens up the opportunity to not hide our problems away and act like they belong somewhere else,” he says. While talking to neighbors in U-City about what happened, he’s heard them say, “Yeah, Ferguson’s been going downhill for a long time,” which has left him dumbfounded. “The National Guard is six miles over there–with tear gas. And they’re like, ‘Yeah, it’s over there–it’s north of I-70. It’s their problem.'” Jason Wilson, owner of Northwest Coffee and Chronicle Coffee, walks up to the table to greet Ihnen, and joins the discussion. Recently, he drove from Ferguson to Northwest Coffee’s location in downtown Clayton, an affluent suburb in the county. “It took me 10 minutes,” he says.
Since the discussion of a merger has resurfaced, municipalities in the county have been voting against a merger, even though no formal plan has been put forth. Bird and a grassroots organization she founded called Common Sense for St. Louis, which implores citizens to oppose a merger, have been key in advocating for these resolutions. “You have boundaries, and you pay for those,” she says. “I don’t see a problem with boundaries. We set personal boundaries in our relationships. But then again, there’s no reason why we can’t choose to work together, or spend time together, and then retreat back to our own little personal space.” Those who disagree often tell her, “‘Well, when people from out of town ask where you’re from, you just say St. Louis, you don’t say U-City,” she says. “Well, frequently I do say, ‘U-City–it’s outside of St. Louis.” She pulls her reading glasses over her eyes, again pointing to the PowerPoint slides.
“People love St. Louis, and a lot of people love their part of St. Louis,” says Marius Johnson of Better Together. “I know that every one of us lives in the neighborhood they live in very intentionally, and have a lot of pride and love for it.” Other cities that have undergone mergers, however, have achieved economic and population growth by thinking of themselves as a unified region, rather than a grouping of disjointed communities. “A lot of people fear that they will lose the identity of their community,” he says. “We’re used to fighting over pieces of the pie, instead of growing it.” While the political debate rages on, questions surrounding a merger present the opportunity to explore what a sustainable 21st-century urban model could look like, and how St. Louis could achieve it. Regardless of the outcome, the city, deeply rooted by hometown pride, is at an important crossroads.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, a deeper look into the relationship between St. Louis’ racial history and current urban structure.
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