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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.

City-county cooperation talks advance

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 26, 2011 - When officials of St. Louis and St. Louis County began talking about possibly merging some services, no one thought the process would set any records for speedy completion.

So how have things been going so far? Garry Earls, chief operating officer for the county, puts it like this:

"What I would have liked to have seen is something akin to a toboggan slide down a hill, and what we're getting is more like a glacier. We're still moving down the hill, but we're doing it at a glacier's pace."

Why the slow motion? Part of the problem, says Jeff Rainford, chief of staff to Mayor Francis Slay in the city, is how much time and effort have gone into the push for incentives for the China hub at Lambert Airport -- a move that gained little traction in a special session of the Missouri legislature that wheezed to a close this week in Jefferson City.

Beyond that, though, is the difficulty of reconciling different ways of doing business by two political entities that were divorced in the 19th century and have had a sometimes cordial, sometimes wary co-existence ever since.

Asked about the varying styles earlier this year, Earls likened it to a "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" situation. The reality may not be that stark, but the means, the ends and the outlooks often need to be smoothed out so they can fit together -- if they can be made to work as a unit at all.

Still, said those involved, the effort can have big payoffs, in efficiency and in money, so it is well worth trying.

"If you want to do something," Rainford told the Beacon this week, "you can come up with really good reasons to do it. If you don't want to do it, you can come up with really good reasons not to do it. That's a really hard thing to overcome."

Non-compete Strategy

Around the time that city voters decided to keep the 1 percent earnings tax for another five years, a report came outdetailing ways the city and the county could save money and streamline operations if they could cooperate in areas where they were doing business already.

Rather than tackle the big-picture question that always raises big objections -- a merger of the city and county -- officials in both jurisdictions decided to proceed with baby steps, identifying three areas where they should look into cooperative working arrangements: economic development, health services and construction code management.

Earls said no work has been done on the last one, and as far as health services go, basic questions of definition remain.

"What we call health services and what they call health services are quite a bit different," he said. "It's all still about health, but the way we fund them is different from how they fund them. There are two completely different views of how to get from here to there."

The area where the most progress has been made -- or at least the one where there has been the most activity -- has been economic development. The China hub effort, including tax incentives to encourage greater cargo traffic at Lambert Airport and the growth that would go along with it in north St. Louis County, was a good example that just couldn't make it to the finish line, Rainford said.

But in many ways, it exemplified how the city and county want to start working with each other, not against each other, to benefit the region as a whole.

"We want a true city-county economic development strategy," Rainford said, "so we're not competing against each other with finite resources but instead uniting to compete with the rest of the country and the rest of the world. It means either combining the two agencies or having them cooperate so closely that the lines are really blurred."

Rodney Crim, the executive director of the St. Louis Development Corp., said that way of looking at the situation envisions what he called a "regional approach to entrepreneurship -- what are all the different entrepreneurial initiatives that are happening throughout the region and how can we pool them and collectively work together?"

To help reach that goal, a conference was held earlier this year at the Missouri Botanical Garden where marketing experts from Kansas City, Nashville and Oklahoma City explained how they try to sell their regions to the rest of the world.

One basic approach, Crim said, was that the city and county had to agree to become teammates, not antagonists.

"Both of us have lots of assets," he said, "and we want to really think through how to utilize those assets in the best interests of the collective region. There's land there, there's land here. There's port activity there, there's the airport and land around the airport. We're just trying to work through all the opportunities, identify the assets we have and work together on how to leverage those assets."

Typically, though, putting such a formula to work is far easier said than done. Earls pointed out one basic difference between how the county and the city approach economic development.

"In the city," he said, "economic development is primary a real estate function, while we on the other hand are far more marketing, open-ground driven. Our land reutilization authority is not a very important part of our economic development effort.

"They start with the property and try to put something on it. We start with the economic development and try to find a place for it. It's much harder for the city, which has 10,000 individual properties that are in some stage of public ownership. We don't own property in St. Louis County in any way, shape or form. We both try to put businesses in new jurisdictions, but we just go about it very differently. We really don't care if it's in Fenton or in Spanish Lake, if it's where the customer wants it and property is available."

Assembling the Jigsaw Puzzle

All of that sounds fine, in theory. So why is the toboggan ride that Earls, Rainford, Crim and the others are on moving like Allen Craig's pet tortoise?

Inertia appears to be one of the causes, with tradition coming in a close second. Culture clashes do play a role as well, though Rainford thinks those can be overcome.

"At the end of the day," he said, "the issue longer term is not so much the cultures as it is convincing people on the ground to give up power or give up authority or give up perks, whatever you want to call it. It's going to be difficult to do if people in administrative positions are dragging their feet."

Crim adds that opinions between city and county also are involved.

"There could be perceptions that others have who have chosen to locate in the county," he said, "or those businesses that have chosen to locate in the city. That's OK. With a regional approach, we want to help businesses succeed wherever they want to be.

"It's not hard to think about how to do that. We just need to say to each other, we're not going to pit the county and the city against each other with this company -- it's about what is best for the company. Where do they want to be? In that case, it will be a benefit for the whole region. Their employees come from all over the region, so you have to have a regional approach."

And inevitably, political personalities and perks play a part as well, Earls said, no matter what issue the city and county try to work together on.

"What you'd like to have is a jigsaw puzzle where we jig and they jag, so we fit together," he said. "I think economic development is where that seems to work out the best, but in fact working together in a single organization becomes a cultural issue.

"It's one thing for the mayor's office to say they want to work together on economic development, but it's another thing altogether for the 28 members of the Board of Aldermen. That sort of thing is not very hard for the county, in terms of how we go about it."