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St. Louis City and St. Louis County: navigating "The Great Divorce"

A map of the state of Missouri, with St. Louis City highlighted in red and St. Louis County in green.
(Wikimedia Commons/Kelsey Proud, St. Louis Public Radio)
A map of the state of Missouri, with St. Louis City highlighted in red and St. Louis County in green.

St. Louis city and county split in 1876 in what has come to be called “The Great Divorce.”

There have been several efforts to reunite the two, but voters, whether in the city or the county, have rejected them time and again.

In the last year there’s been renewed talk of St. Louis re-entering the county, but leaders in the city and county say they’re exploring a slower approach.

One hundred and thirty-five years ago the city chose to secede from the St. Louis County, mostly because city dwellers didn’t want to pay for roads and other amenities for their country cousins.

It was a decision that had long-lasting consequences, including confining the city to its borders and creating an often competitive relationship with the county.

For Dr. Charles Schmitz, a county resident, it took a trip to Indianapolis to drive the impact home.

“They kept saying ‘we’re the 14th largest city in the United States.’” Schmitz recalled.  “And I remember thinking to myself ‘that this doesn’t look like the 14th largest city’. You know, St. Louis looks far larger.”

As soon as he got home, Schmitz, a retired dean from the University of Missouri-St. Louis wrote an editorial called “St. Louis is a World ClassCity.”

Schmitz says when the Post-Dispatch ran it last summer the reaction was so great he co-founded an organization by the same name.

Now the group’s goal is to get a constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot as early as next year asking whether St. Louis should re-enter the county as the 92nd municipality. Schmitz calls it a first step.

“We are so much more bound together as a community than we like to think we are,” Schmitz said. “So why don’t we just live out the reality of what we are anyway?”

Political scientist Terry Jones has long studied that question.

The University of Missouri St. Louis professor wrote the book Fragmented By Design, which details the history of the split and the many failed efforts to reconcile.

“Each time that the city and the county have come together to talk about getting back together, it’s been a situation where one side or the other thought it had the upper hand,” Jones said.

He says in the last 50 years the city and county have found ways to collaborate with the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District, the Zoo Museum District, and the Convention and Visitors Commission, to name a few.

He has said for years that the two governments should share more services instead of trying to reverse the so-called Great Divorce, and he often uses this analogy.

“It doesn’t need to be marriage. In fact, very few of us on the first date get married,” Jones said.

A report released this month from PFM (Public Financial Market) of Philadephia supports that view.

Funded by billionaire businessman Rex Sinquefield, the study looks at how the city and county could cooperate with the goal of more efficiency and fewer costs.

City and county leaders are embracing the idea and have met several times to discuss three particular areas: public health, economic development, and construction code enforcement.

Jeff Rainford, chief of staff for Mayor Francis Slay, says the mayor would like to see the city re-enter the county eventually.

But Rainford says there’s a lot to prove to both city and county taxpayers first.

“What we have to show them is what it is and what it isn’t. And what it is consolidating and providing services in a really smart, effective, efficient way,” Rainford said. “And what it is not is either the county bailing out the city or the city bailing out the county. It is not that.”

In the county chief operating officer Garry Earls says much the same thing.

While Earls thinks it would be nice to resolve the 135 split between the city and county, he says for now they need to make a go of cooperating on those three focus areas.

“If we could do that and do it and do it well, then we could prove that working together is not a danger to the community either in Wildwood or Tower Grove,” Earls said.

So the city and county don’t seem eager to help Dr. Schmitz’s effort to see the city re-enter the county, at least not any time soon.

As Earls puts it, in relationship terms, the city and county are just meeting for coffee.

Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.

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