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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.

St. Louis candidates for mayor agree that any city-county merger is a long way off

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 12, 2013 - In 1876, in an election that still prompts allegations of vote fraud, residents in the city of St. Louis voted to break away from St. Louis County. The move was prompted by cost-cutting and fears of urban meddling in Jefferson City.

Since then, various efforts – all unsuccessful – have been attempted by city and regional officials to repair what’s become known as the Great Divorce. The biggest hurdle likely rests in St. Louis County, where voters – whose predecessors had opposed the split -- have since resisted a political remarriage.

Thus, the re-emergence of the issue in this year’s St. Louis mayoral contest has surprised some experts on the topic.

“It’s not going to happen,” said Ken Warren, a political science professor at Saint Louis University.

Warren noted that he also is a pollster and said he has conducted polls on the question. “There is almost no support for it in St. Louis County,” he said. “It’s just going to go nowhere.”

Warren recalled that city-county talk had erupted during the 2010 campaign for St. Louis County executive, with Republican Bill Corrigan accusing Democratic incumbent Charlie Dooley of secretly favoring a merger. Dooley had denied it, adding that any such proposal would require voter approval in the city and county, so any discussion was pointless.

In any case, some in both camps conceded that the issue had negative traction, even if Dooley won re-election.

The pluses and minuses of any arrangement that allows the city of St. Louis to re-enter St. Louis County have been debated for decades. Backers often cite the duplication of certain offices because St. Louis is now its own county. The city has such elective posts as assessor, recorder of deeds and treasurer that likely wouldn’t be needed if the city were part of St. Louis County, which has its own version of such offices.

Opponents say St. Louis, even with its population loss over the past 60 years, is too large and too complex to be simply a portion of the county. Warren contends that some city African-Americans fear their political clout might be diluted in St. Louis County.

Meanwhile, in the county, some critics long have feared that any inclusion of the city into the county might lead to the city having too much influence in county affairs. That concern reached its peak in the days when the county was largely Republican turf, while the city was overwhelmingly Democratic. Now that the county is seen overall as reliably Democratic, that political argument isn’t heard as much.

Amid all that debate over the past few decades, the city and St. Louis have been involved in several cooperative ventures – from the effort to share public-health functions in the 1980s to the city-county involvement in Metro, the Convention and Visitors Commission and the operations of the city-owned Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.

Which brings us to this year’s contest for mayor of St. Louis.

The three Democratic mayoral candidates’ comments relating to any city-county merger have been nuanced. And although they do have some differences on the topic, Mayor Francis Slay and Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed both have emphasized that they support regional cooperation.

“I have been a big advocate of doing more things on a regional basis,” Slay said. “It helps us address a lot of issues on a regional basis.”

Slay supports the city’s re-entry into the county as another municipality. The mayor acknowledges that even that approach is unpopular among some St. Louis County residents, but he believes that the issue is less divisive among younger area residents.

The mayor says that re-entry is simply a longer-term goal and that his chief focus is on expanding regional efforts.

Reed offers a similar assessment. “Number one, we put cooperative agreements together right now with all these major departments, from police to fire departments to emergency services to health departments,” Reed said. “And begin to look at ways of lowering the costs of all of these things.”

If such arrangements are successful, Reed said, the public might be amenable to take additional steps toward St. Louis’ re-entry into the county. Reed maintained during the last major candidate forum that St. Louis should become part of St. Louis County only if the two are “equal partners.”

Democratic rival Jimmie Matthews, a former alderman, opposes any sort of city-county merger. He says the result would be an unwieldy local government that’s too large to respond adequately to residents’ concerns.

Watching all this is St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, who has endorsed Slay’s re-election.

“As we go forward, we need to cooperate more and collaborate more,” Dooley said, adding “we do a lot of things together right now.”

“It does make sense,” he said in an interview. “ We all live in the same geographic area. When you leave the St. Louis metropolitan area, you don’t say you’re from Chesterfield or from Town & Country or from Northwoods or from Florissant. You say you’re from St. Louis.”

Dooley noted cooperative efforts between the city and county parks departments, and both entities’ law enforcement agencies.

Dooley also emphasized, as he did during his 2010 re-election campaign, that voters in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County would need to approve any sort of merger proposal, such as the city re-entering the county as another municipality.

“If the city wants to be a municipality, it doesn’t cost the county a dime for them to do that,” Dooley said. “I’m in favor of them moving with us if it doesn’t cost us additional money on taxpayers. The city can be a city within the county just like any other city – like Florissant or Clayton … . We don’t take on any of their liabilities. That’s all it would be.”

St. Louis “can be the 90th municipality” in St. Louis County, Dooley quipped. “They can take St. George’s place.”

The tiny county community of St. George dissolved last year.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.