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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.

County Council approves city-county economic development partnership

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 18, 2013: The St. Louis County Council gave its final blessing to merging some duties of city and county economic development agencies, a move that ratifies a plan announced earlier this year.

In early spring, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley unveiled the new St. Louis Economic Development Partnership. While both jurisdictions still have their own economic development agencies, the partnership combines programs fostering business development, job creation and entrepreneurship.

St. Louis County Economic Council President Denny Coleman will serve as chief executive officer of the new agency. Rodney Crim, executive director at St. Louis Development Corp., will serve as president. The new organization – which includes a shift of about 10 SLDC employees – will be located in Clayton.

“In terms of people, the folks involved in business retention, expansion and entrepreneurship across a broad spectrum of different initiatives, those folks that are working on that from the city will move to within our organization out here in Clayton,” Coleman said last week. “We will modify both the board and corporate structure of the economic council to become the new economic development partnership.”

To go into effect, the venture needed approval from the St. Louis Board of Aldermen and the St. Louis County Council. The county council voted 5-2 on Tuesday to approve the plan, while the Board of Aldermen gave its final approval last Friday.

Coleman told the Beacon that the new partnership would formulate a strategic economic development plan for the city and the county.

“We anticipate the revised board, as well as the city and county representatives, business organizations that were all represented here today to participate in that,” Coleman said. “And that should take place the fourth quarter of this year.”

During debate over the bill in late May, Alderman Fred Wessels, D-13th Ward, said, “There would certainly be a synergy when you bring 30 development professionals from the county and 10 from the city.”

He also said the partnership could “minimize” what he termed “tax subsidy shopping.”

“Let’s just take a fictitious company,” Wessels said. “They’ve been in the city. Their lease is up. They’ve got 500 employees. And they say, ‘our lease is up in 2014, we’re thinking about moving. What can you do for us?' They’ll come to the city. And we’ll offer a package. Then they go to the county, and then they’ll offer a package. And then they’ll come to the city. That’s going to be minimized.

“They’re going to be going to one entity – the partnership,” he added. “The partnership is going to ask ‘what are their real needs?’ Do they need to be next to a highway, for instance? Or do they want to be in a place with high activity like downtown St. Louis? Once they get all the factors, they’ll help the business make a decision.”

Opposition from some aldermen, council members

The proposal sparked opposition primarily from African-American aldermen in the city and both Republican members of the county council.

Alderwoman Sharon Tyus, D-1st Ward, said one reason she voted against the bill in May was because Wessels didn’t answer her questions when the bill was up for debate in May. Those questions included whether the Board of Aldermen had the authority to renew the agreement in 10 years.

“When you’ve really got a good piece of legislation, it stands up to questions and you can answer them,” Tyus said last Friday. “My questions were not answered. And he never made any attempt to answer them. They just said ‘I have the most votes.’"

Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward, said during debate that city legislators didn’t get enough specific information about the proposal.

“Throughout this whole process, we kept being told by different people to take their word for it,” said French in an exchange with Wessels. “In fact, when I questioned SLDC leadership in the committee hearing, I even said that it sounds like what we’re being told is in lieu of any piece of paper or any agreement that we can look at and study, they’re telling us ‘don’t worry, take our word for it, it’s going to be awesome.’

“That’s not how we’re supposed to legislate down here.”

Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country, and Councilman Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin, both cast 'no' votes during Tuesday's votes. Quinn called the proposal a "a solution in search of a problem."

"Essentially, it’s being suggested that there is a perception that we’re competing with St. Louis city. But we’ve been provided no examples of that competition," Quinn said. "So if there are no actual problems that this measure solves, then what is the reason for the measure?"

Tyus also questioned during debate on the bill whether partnership would be effective with the involvement of places like St. Charles County or Jefferson County.

"They will not care what we are talking about," said Tyus, referring to St. Charles. "They are going to be grabbing whatever they can get and grabbing the best deals. And until this is a much more regional thing, I don’t see this working. I see this as a first step, but not really working."

For his part, Wessels said the partnership "is going to be the biggest fish in this relatively small pond. And there’s going to be others that are going to want to join in." 

"We’re going to have with the city and the county 1.5 million residents that are going to be covered by the partnership," Wessels said. "So we’re going to have a big chunk – not only a big chunk of this metro area, but the main drivers of economic development."

And when asked about the lack of involvement from jurisdictions like St. Charles County, Dooley said, "That is a concern as we go forward." That included contributing to the Zoo-Museum District or helping with stadiums.

"One of the things I've said about this, on some occasions, is St. Charles needs to get involved in this process," Dooley said. "It's not just St. Louis city or St. Louis County. It's a regional effort. They need to get involved with the Zoo, the Art Museum. They use those facilities. The Dome. They use all those facilities. Somewhere down the road, this will have to be addressed."

'Smells like city-county merger'

Adversaries of the plan also charged that the proposal was part of an incremental march to merge St. Louis and St. Louis County.

Jennifer Bird, a Republican state committeewoman from St. Louis County, told the council earlier in June that the proposal “smells like city-county merger to me.”

By merging duties of the business development councils, she said, “You’re going to send the wrong messages to businesses and they’re going to leave the area completely. I’m just curious why we think we need to combine these two entities, specifically with relation to business.

“Competition spurs excellence,” she added. “Competition is what gets some people into better colleges than others. Competition also produces more results and it produces good behavior and it encourages low cost. So cooperation is great. But this isn’t Kumbaya. It’s a free market system. So I think that needs to be considered.”

Tyus said the city used to have its own transportation and sewer systems. When the county and city banded together to form Metro and the Metropolitan Sewer District, she said it removed immediate accountability.

“So you continue to do that, you continue to take the power [away from aldermen],” she said. “Then when people call aldermen and they get on our case about ‘why isn’t this being done?’ Well, you have no power to affect it anymore because it’s been effectively removed from you being able to do anything, except make a phone call and complain. When before, they … had to come before you in their budget and you had some power to say ‘you need to do something else’ or ‘you didn’t keep their word.’”

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and Councilman Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin, talk about the economic development merger.

Tyus also said that the partnership was part of a “march” to merge the city and the county. And Quinn added, "There are supporters of the merger of the city and county that advocate achieving that objective with small initial steps."

"So until we’re provided with solid reasons for this particular measure, I think it’s very reasonable for people to assume that this one of those initial steps to accomplish that merger," Quinn said.

But Dooley noted that a public vote is required for the city to re-enter St. Louis County. And he also said the city and the county already collaborate on funding for stadiums, the Zoo-Museum District and Great Rivers Greenway.

“There’s a lot of things we do together. And why should we not? It just makes a lot of good sense," Dooley said. "The Dome. The Stadium. Metro. Great Rivers Greenway. All those things that make us a great community. We do it together. So why not do it together?"

"It doesn’t mean that we’re going to merge," he added. "It means that we can do something more efficiently together."

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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