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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.

On the Trail: STL County GOP makes opposition to city-county union loud and clear

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 24, 2013: When an economic development partnership between St. Louis County and the city of St. Louis came up for debate this month, some of the county’s Republicans were among the loudest detractors.

Some leaders within the county GOP questioned whether merging some economic development duties of the two jurisdictions would be effective. But they primarily contended that the partnership was part of an incremental slide to bringing the city of St. Louis back into the county fold.

Proponents of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership – including St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and Councilman Mike O’Mara, D-Florissant – strongly disputed that point, noting that any merger, re-entry or reunion would require a public vote. And opposition from county Republicans – and some African-American aldermen in the city – wasn’t enough to derail the partnership, which proponents say will strengthen efforts to attract businesses to the region.

Still, the episode did showcase that any effort to end the separation of the city and county will face vocal – and probably organized – opposition from county Republicans. After all, the St. Louis County Republican Party Central Committee formally passed a resolution earlier this month formally opposing "any efforts that may or could be made to enhance, support or advance any legislation or bill made by St. Louis County Council or the Missouri legislature that could be or may be favorable in the support of any merger of St. Louis County and the city of St. Louis."

“Do we all love St Louis city and we feel a kinship? Of course. It’s our hometown,” said Jennifer Bird, a state committeewoman and member of the St. Louis County Republican Central Committee. “However, St. Louis city … basically said ‘Uh ho – we don’t want the county to suck dry our resources. Stay away.’ Well now the roles are reversed.”

Bird was referring to the so-called "Great Divorce" in 1877, when the city and county separated. At that time the city had a larger population and saw the largely rural county as a drain on its resources. Now St. Louis County has nearly a million residents – compared to more than 300,000 people for the city.

Plenty of policymakers have toyed with the idea of reuniting the two entities, usually with the city becoming a municipality under county jurisdiction. Some proponents of a city-county reunion say the move could reduce duplicative offices that exist because St. Louis is now its own county. And others say it would make the St. Louis region more cohesive and less factionalized.

But some committee members -- including County GOP Chairman Bruce Buwalda -- say the county's costs would go up if it had to assume city services -- such as roads or parks.

"Once they hit the city limits, they’re city property," said Buwalda, referring to some roads that are in the city and the county. "But if we become one, those highways will become county property and the county would have to maintain them."

"I got to know some potholes by first name over the 17 years," he added. "It never got fixed. There were streetlights constantly out. They never got fixed. There was an indication of a city deteriorating – roads and streets that don’t work."

Councilman Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin, echoed some of those concerns after last Tuesday's meeting.

“The problem with any of the proposals that I’ve heard about of the city re-entering the county as an additional municipality is that the county provides funding for arterial roads, for the health department, for the courthouse, for parks and for a variety of county-wide services,” Quinn said. “So there could be a massive expenditure by the county for what have up to this point been city expenditures.”

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay – who said in his April inauguration address that he “confidently" expected that the city will rejoin the county in a decade – has disputed that the county would assume city expenses.

And earlier this year, Dooley emphasized that the city of St. Louis could "be a city within the county just like any other city – like Florissant or Clayton."

"We don’t take on any of their liabilities, then that would be just another city in St. Louis County," he said.

Dooley also noted that residents of the two jurisdictions have for years worked together in funding stadiums, public transportation and sewer systems. The two entities also contribute to the Zoo-Museum District and Great Rivers Greenway.

“We all live in the same geographic area,” Dooley said. “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. We’re in this together. Now how we move forward, how we communicate, how we collaborate – it’s going to be open for discussion as we move forward.”

While the St. Louis County GOP committee's resolution was unanimous, not every Republican committeeperson is opposed the idea of a city-county union.

David Stokes – a Republican committeeman from Clayton Township – said he would have voted against the measure had he attended the meeting. 

“I do not support a merger at all. If a merger of the two were on the ballot, I would personally be voting against it,” said Stokes, a former aide to then-county Councilman Kurt Odenwald and a policy analyst with the Show Me Institute. “But if we can talk about how the city re-enters the county and combines a few more offices and saves a lot more money, I think there’s a lot of good things worth talking about there.”

He also said the move could actually benefit the St. Louis County’s finances, primarily because city residents would be paying county property taxes. 

"The people in the city in such a scenario would be paying the county road and bridge tax," said Stokes, responding to the contention that the county would have to take over city roads. "The idea that the county taxpayers would subsidize it is crazy. And where I’m getting at is in a place like the city where they provide most of their own services, trust me the county taxpayers would be getting the better end of this deal – not the city taxpayers." 

Game over for Republicans?

One of the potential political byproducts of the city re-entering the county could be political: Such a move would make it difficult – if not outright impossible – for Republicans to capture the county executive’s office or take control of the St. Louis County Council.

Councilman Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin, answers questions about the political ramifications of St. Louis re-entering St. Louis County.

While some may argue that the GOP's window to make gains in county-level government ended long ago, Dooley nearly lost to Republican Bill Corrigan in 2010. Even a close shave like that seems unlikely if thousands of Democratic voters from the city were added into the county.

It would essentially create a situation analogous to Jackson County – which includes a chunk of Kansas City – where winning the Democratic primary for the county executive’s office is tantamount to election.

“That’s a political negative,” Stokes said. “And as Republican Central Committee member, I understand it. I’d like to see one of the requirements of the city re-entering the county to be an expansion of the county council maybe to nine or 11 members. Because it is a truism that we all agree that people benefit when you have a two-party system. And nobody benefits when you have one party controlling everything.”

But opponents of any city-county union stressed that their opposition stems from the potential costs of a merger – not political ramifications. 

“This doesn’t have anything to do with Libertarians, Republicans, Democrats, Independent. This is practical, not partisan,” Bird said. “And I want to make that perfectly clear. Because I grew up a liberal Democrat in University City and most of my friends still call themselves liberal Democrats. And they are adamantly opposed to a city-county merger.”

Quinn alluded to the idea that some African-American political leaders in the city fear their political clout might be diluted in St. Louis County. He went on to say that if you "did a poll of the citizenry, they would be very much against this merger."

“And they’re not concerned about politics or political parties," he added. "I think they’re concerned about the expenditure of their tax dollars.”

Quinn may be on to something. St. Louis University political science professor Ken Warren told the Beacon earlier this year that he had conducted polling on the question and found little support for the move in St. Louis County. That could be significant if only the city and county vote on the matter, a scenario preferred by Dooley. That may be less relevant if the issue is put up for a statewide vote.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

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