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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.

Mayor calls for city to rejoin St. Louis County

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 21, 2009 - After being sworn in for a third term, Mayor Francis Slay said Tuesday that it is time for the city to start working to re-enter St. Louis County.

In a speech previewed on his website, Slay said it was time for St. Louis to leave many old problems and old attitudes in the past.

"An inauguration is as good a time as any to put some things behind us," Slay said. "Given the challenges ahead of us, we cannot afford to keep fighting the old St. Louis fights. So, if you have ever, for any reason, thought my door was closed to you, try it again today.

"We have a lot of things to do in four years -- and getting it all done is going to take every arm, every eye, every pen, and every heart I can enlist."

After reviewing the benefits of working together as a region, and the shocks that the economic turmoil has brought to the city and the metropolitan area, Slay returned -- albeit briefly -- the idea of reuniting the city and county that has been brought up before but never vigorously pursued.

"Many of our government institutions and practices were put in place in a very different age," he said, "long before anyone considered Mexico and India as threats to our jobs. We will have to become more effective and efficient -- and government must be collaborative.

"The city must reform its charter. The city, the inner suburbs, and outer suburbs must combine services. And, I strongly believe, that we must begin to lay the groundwork for the city of St. Louis to enter St. Louis County."

The separation of the city and county occurred after a vote on Aug. 22, 1876, where city residents voted to secede from the largely rural St. Louis County and become a separate entity. The idea of bringing the two back together -- either by making the city a municipality within the county or having the county annexed by the city -- has been discussed many times since, but it has rarely gained much traction.

Following Slay's speech, his chief of staff, Jeff Rainford, said in an interview that no one expects the city and county to come together any time soon. But, he noted, in tough economic times, the separation makes less sense than ever.

"Everybody is going to have to do more with less," Rainford said. "When things get extraordinarily difficult, which they are right now, people are a lot more open to doing things differently.

"If it were up to the mayor, the city and county would come together tomorrow. That's not realistic. But he does believe they have to start doing things together, so the next mayor and the next county executive can wake up one day and say we are doing so much stuff together, we should take the next step."

Rainford said Slay would use his office as a bully pulpit to educate the public about the benefits of the city and county joining together in areas such as transportation, aviation, joint fire and police protection, banning smoking in public places and more. He also pointed to the need for economic development to be pursued on a regional basis.

"We need to stop using incentives to move jobs around the region and work jointly to bring jobs into the region," he said, adding that it's not just the city and the county but other parts of the area, including Illinois.

Rainford said that if the city and county can accomplish "baby steps" toward greater cooperation, a merger could follow naturally, in due time.

"We are doing a lot of things today for reasons that may have been logical a long time ago but no longer hold true today," he said.

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley said today that the city must change its structure before there is any chance for it to join the county. The city would have to abolish the so-called county offices that would duplicate what already exists in his government.

As far as the concept of working together goes, Dooley noted city-county cooperation on a range of issues, such as Metro, MSD, the Zoo-Museum District, the convention and visitors bureau and more. He says he talks every week with Slay and while the city-county merger idea has not come up recently, it's hardly a new topic.

"Everybody talks about it now and then, in one form or another, either negatively or positively," Dooley said. "But there's been no movement toward a resolution, mostly because of structural reasons."

He acknowledges that any effort to bring the two entities together would involve a massive public education effort. He's not against that, Dooley said, but he noted that the area has lived with its patchwork of governments for a long time, and people seem to be satisfied, so change would be difficult to achieve.

"If it works, it works," he said. "If that's what people want, that's what people want. It has to be a benefit to the general population, otherwise they won't go for it. We've got to make the case."

As logical as a merger may sound, history doesn't point to it happening any time soon, if ever, said Terry Jones, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. He noted that the merger idea seems to resurface every 20 or 30 years, "so it's time."

In the 1980s, he noted, the effort went as far as a legal document that was fairly detailed to the level of how pension plans would merge and so forth. But even then officials in Clayton -- the current county seat -- didn't sound too thrilled about the idea of losing their status, or parts of the county government complex that take up a lot of turf, and provide a lot of jobs, in the tony community.

Other formidable obstacles include a favorable vote by residents of the city and the county. County voters, who outnumber their city counterparts by roughly 3 to 1, have traditionally been thought to be resistant to the idea. But it's not clear that city residents would support a merger either, if it meant doing away with the city's distinction of having a prominent mayor or even the so-called "county offices'' -- like the recorder of deeds, circuit clerk and license collector -- that set St. Louis apart from every other city in the state. 

Jones says he's not even sure that having the city rejoin the county -- the most likely scenario, if anything happens at all -- would be a good idea.

"People naively assume that if we merge, then we will get better together," he said. "That is not necessarily the case.

"If this becomes a leading item on the civic agenda in the St. Louis area, it will consume a great deal of civic energy for upward of 24 months. There are opportunity costs to civic involvement like there are to other things. Is this the best way to spend our energy?"

Echoing Rainford, Jones said that a more productive route would be to pick out a few areas where the city and county could work together more effectively and pursue them -- in effect, move in together before trying to make a merger legal. Anything else, he said, would be a "noble attempt that leads to rejection at the polls."

Rainford noted that the city-county split is not the only historical legacy that needs to be addressed. After his one sentence about bringing the city into the county, Slay went on to talk about another thorny issue: the state's control of the city's police force.

"There are several representatives here today from Gov. Jay Nixon's office and several members of the Missouri General Assembly," he said. "Ladies and gentlemen from Jefferson City, it is time to let go of the past. The Civil War ended 144 years ago.

"In the age of YouTube, iPhones and Twitter, it is time that St. Louis joined every other city in America and got its own police department. Gov. Nixon, I promise we will not use it against the Confederate Army."

Slay also called for the city to get a bigger share of state transportation money, so "the St. Louis region could fund affordable, clean, reliable, useful, and safe public transportation that let workers reach their jobs without burning gallons of gasoline. And we could finally break the 'one-to-a-car, surround-it-with-surface-parking' construction habits that waste valuable land and blight landscapes.

"If MoDOT will not play fair now, it cannot expect us to support its plans in the future -- and we will also work with others in the region to find ways to help ourselves."

Calling for government to be easier to work with and more receptive -- "there is no reason why getting a building permit should require a trip to City Hall or be much more difficult than buying a book on Amazon" -- Slay said he would build on his first two terms to make his third term achieve further progress.

"The past eight years have been an awakening; we have shown what we can accomplish if we dream great dreams and if we work together to make them reality," he said. "The next four years will see just how far we can really go.

"It is time to get to work on the future. It is time to set aside our differences and come together around a common agenda."

Jo Mannies contributed some information to this story. 

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.