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After decades of contemplation and debate, a group known as Better Together is recommending an end to the “Great Divorce” between St. Louis and St. Louis County.Better Together is proposing an ambitious plan to create a unified metro government and police department and limit municipalities' ability to levy sales taxes. The plan 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.

We can work it out: Forum explores city-county reorganization

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 12, 2011 - Local leaders cited new census figures in arguing for the need for St. Louis city and county to cooperate more, if not fully reunite.

They said reorganization is necessary if the region wants to add population and have a more efficient government. The 2010 census figures show the city had lost 8 percent of its population since 2000, dropping to 319,000 while the county lost nearly 2 percent, bringing it under the 1 million mark.

"We will wither on the vine if we don't do something," said Kathleen Sullivan Brown, professor of education policy at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

The comments by local leaders came at a panel discussion Thursday sponsored by Women's Voices Raised for Social Justice. The census figures have added a new wrinkle in an ongoing discussion about whether the city's historic split from the county in 1876 can be undone.

Sullivan Brown, who was representing a citizen initiative called St. Louis-World Class City, made the case for having the city join the county as the 92nd municipality no later than 2014. She added she hoped it would come from a grassroots effort.

"We believe that there's never been a grassroots effort," she said. "We believe that if citizens, business people, students want this to happen, we can make it happen."

Another panelist, state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, pressed her case for her Senate bill to ask Missouri voters to amend the state constitution to allow a geopolitical reorganization between the city and county. If approved, the specifics would be left up to local officials and, ultimately, county and city voters.

Nobody made the case for a full-blown merger -- an idea that would combine the city and county into one giant city and under one government.

Sullivan Brown and Chappelle-Nadal were joined by aides to Mayor Francis Slay and County Executive Charlie Dooley and Terry Jones, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Jones didn't opine on the proposals Thursday night. But in a recent op-ed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he warned that the process wouldn't be that easy.

Moving the city back into the county would, among other things, force a messy reorganization of the court system and require officials to figure out how to transfer the city's local tax collection system to St. Louis County.

Another thorny issue he raised: Should St. Louis County keep its seven county districts by expanding the representation ratio, or should the number of districts be expanded to nine? And would the city's re-entry make the Democratic-trending county even more Democratic?

"Add city re-entry into St. Louis County to the list of items that are not as simple as they first seem," he wrote.

But proponents say the population bleed will continue without some action.

For Jeff Rainford, representing Slay, the region's current government structure is suited for an older era. "There really isn't anybody whose job it is to lead us as a region to deal with these major changes, and they're coming whether we like it or not," Rainford said.

Even worse, Rainford said, is competition within the region and the duplication of government services: "There is more energy and money spent in St. Louis competing against ourselves than there is competing against the world," Rainford said, citing competing Midwest China Hub proposals and the existence of more than 90 municipalities in the county -- "fiefdoms," as he termed them.

The exact way to solve those problems was far from clear, however.

Rainford stopped short of advocating a full merger, but he voiced support for any sort of regional cooperation that would benefit both the city and county. County residents, for instance, would need to be assured that their tax dollars wouldn't go toward bailing out the city.

"We [in the city] will merge anything, but we understand you [in the county] can't," he said. "You tell us what your taxpayers are comfortable merging."

Sullivan Brown said her proposal to reintroduce the city into the county, though not a silver bullet, would help make government more efficient by getting rid of duplicated services and streamlining the bureaucracy.

Her proposal could also give the region a big psychological boost, she said. Right now, she said, the public views St. Louis as a 300,000-person city annually cited for having the most crime and "even the worst teeth" -- rather than as a region of nearly 3 million with world-class amenities. "It really does hurt," she said. "The impression is that we are this dead, dying, old, dangerous place."

For Mike Jones, policy adviser to County Executive Charlie Dooley, having the city enter the county again is the "threshold issue" -- that is, it only starts to get at the problem -- and it should have been addressed decades ago.

And he said Chappelle-Nadal had "made a breakthrough" with her bill by avoiding what past efforts at regional reorganization did, namely coming up with a specific solution and sending it to the voters. "If we have to figure out how to solve it before you can put it to the voters I argue it would never happen," Jones said. "I think the approach of the voters authorizing the event compels the leadership to figure out the execution."

Since Chappelle-Nadal's bill would amend the Missouri Constitution, state voters would have to approve it. One audience member questioned whether rural, conservative voters would vote for her amendment. Chappelle-Nadal said voters, if they're true fiscal conservatives, would find her amendment appealing because it would improve government efficiency and save taxpayer dollars.

The bill's prospects don't seem too bright. Chappelle-Nadal said she's been in talks with state Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter.

"We do need a grassroots initiative to get behind this bill and get it done," Women's Voices member Chery Green, 65, Kirkwood.

Grassroots was a common term tossed around Thursday.

Sullivan Brown pointed to the Advance St. Louis campaign, which supported a sales-tax increase in St. Louis County for funding more public transit service. County voters approved that tax increase by a large margin in the April 2010 election. "I think a lot of those folks who worked on that campaign, young and old, really wanted to make a statement about St. Louis," Sullivan Brown said.

Green said St Louis should learn from the booming cities in the Pacific Northwest.

"I do see us going down as a region, and I think we need to more things like they're doing in Portland [Ore.], Seattle, some of the other cities to try to get the image of the region up and get more opportunities for young people," she said.

Puneet Kollipara, a freelance writer in St. Louis, is a student at Washington University and a former intern with the Beacon.