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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.

Better Together launches effort to study - and discuss - city-county compact

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - The chief executives of St. Louis and St. Louis County helped kickstart an endeavor to gather data -- and public input -- that could lead to a potential reunion of the two jurisdictions.

Both St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley helped launch an initiative on Tuesday known as Better Together. They joined dozens of others at the Cheshire Hotel, which straddles the border between the city and the county.

According to a press release, the group -- sponsored by Missouri Council for a Better Economy -- is seeking "to examine how municipal services are delivered to the people who live within the boundaries of St. Louis city and county; compare the status quo to best practices and identify opportunities for improved effectiveness and cost.”

Among other things, Better Together will sponsor six studies over the next 16 months on public finance, economic development, public health, public safety, parks, recreation and infrastructure and administration. It will also, according to the release, put together "valuable information other organizations can use to craft their own plans for what the future of the region should look like, as well as judge plans put forth by others."

The group’s rollout comes amid recent talk of closer ties between the city and the county. While some have discussed a “merger” of city and county governments, the most frequently mentioned idea is for St. Louis to "re-enter" St. Louis County as a municipality. 

The video features highlights from the "Better Together" kickoff event.

Slay has made no secret of his support for some sort of reunification. In his April inaugural address, he said that the city has “built a dozen major partnerships with a county that we confidently expect to reenter in this decade.” Dooley has said he favors “moving forward” with the city joining the county as a municipality “if it doesn’t cost us additional money on taxpayers.”

"We now embark on a 16-month endeavor to determine what is next," Slay said on Tuesday. "It's been a long goal of mine -- there's no secret about this -- to reunify the city and the county. But we are not prejudging anything in the process here."

Added Dooley: "I've said this on many different occasions: If you live in Town and Country, Northwoods, Florissant -- it makes no difference. When you leave the St. Louis region, people will tell you that you're from St. Louis.

"We don't grow individually, we grow collectively," he added. "This is not about unifying the city and the county. This is not about the city re-entering the county. This is about information. Information. That's the key. Information. What we do with it is beyond my expectation."  

George "Bert" Walker – a prominent GOP proponent of a city-county unification – emphasized in a statement that the group was “not putting forth, nor advocating for a specific plan.” He said during his remarks Better Together is "an effort to gather data that will be pertinent to this issue."

“Rather, our role is to act as facilitator, a resource for information and new data,” Walker said.

"Those of us who are passionate about this issue have often asked the question ‘why is it that the study and research and data necessary to craft a formal plan or even to have an informed opinion has not been gathered and does not exist?’" Walker said. "And that is exactly what we’re doing meeting here today." 

In addition to the six studies, Better Together also plans to host “dozens of sponsored discussions and forums.” The release adds that staff and volunteers at Better Together "will organize members of the community to work together to develop information about the performance of local governments."

According to the group's website, Better Together's board of directors includes some regional heavy-hitters. That includes Slay, Dooley, Walker, St. Louis Regional Chamber president and CEO Joe Reagan and St. Louis Building and Trades Council executive secretary-treasurer Jeff Aboussie.

Missouri Council for a Better Economy has been funded in the past by retired financer Rex Sinquefield. Several members of Better Together's board of directors – including Nancy Rice and Rachel Keller Brown – have been involved in organizations or campaigns that Sinquefield funded.

(Sinquefield is a donor to the St. Louis Beacon.)

Sinquefield has contributed prodigiously to both Slay and Dooley over the years. Rice told the Beacon earlier this year that Sinquefield has been generous to Slay and Dooley in part because of their support for closer city-county ties.

Rice – who was the chief spokeswoman for the Sinquefield-funded campaign to end state control of the St. Louis Police Department – said she hasn’t spoken to Sinquefield about Better Together. She added that Walker “has been the lead gift on this and a number of businesses now are chipping in.”

“I hope to have Mr. Sinquefield’s support,” said Rice, adding that donations to the 501(c)(3) non-profit will be regularly disclosed. “But we have not been to him with this.”

Public engagement predicted?

Better Together appears to agree with Slay’s earlier comments that any push for a city-county re-entry or merger would first involve public input and study.

During a recent appearance on the Politically Speaking podcast, Slay said that “nothing moves forward” until a "public engagement process” is completed.

“It’s going to be an open, transparent process,” Slay said. “This will not work if people perceive that this is a behind the scenes political agreement a bunch of politicians.

“There’s no real formalized approach to what I call the city re-enterting the county,” Slay added. “First and foremost, it has to make sense to the people" affected. "That’s the people we represent. So there has to be a lot of community engagement and involvement because the people that we’re going to be trying to sell this to need to understand what this means to them. And it has to make sense.”

Slay noted that the city and the county have had “very good partnerships” over the years. That included, he said, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Zoo-Museum District, the Metropolitan Sewer District and a partial merger of the two jurisdictions’ economic development agencies.

Any plan to reunite the city and the county would have to be done through a public vote. As of now, the Missouri Constitution lays out a process that involves only residents of the city and county voting on such a proposal.

But some have discussed taking the vote statewide because it is widely assumed that any proposal would fail if only city and county residents voted. Several lawmakers from both parties have sponsored constitutional amendments to take such a path.

As he's done in the past, Dooley emphasized he's "for the city and the county voting on this separately, as we’ve always said it would happen."

"Anything significant needs to be a vote of the people of this region," said Dooley, adding a statewide vote would "concern" him. "No place else." 

Asked about his preference on who would vote on a city-county reunification proposal, Slay said on Tuesday that "nothing will happen unless the people of St. Louis city and county approve it. That’s my promise."

"The voters of St. Louis city and St. Louis County would have to approve this. No shotgun marriages here. That’s not going to happen," Slay said. "That is not a good thing. When you try to fit a square peg in a round hole. It doesn’t work."

The release said that “early in 2015, it is expected a very clear picture of current practices will be laid out, which will put all interested parties in a position to compare current practices against best practices.” That may signal that any organized push for re-entry or a merger won’t occur until at least the 2016 elections.

Rice said “there’s no credible scenario” where any vote could occur in 2014. She added though that the group is “not on a path” and doesn’t “have a big calendar” about what to do next.

“When you talk about people not having data, we’re not slow-walking an idea,” Rice said. “There really isn’t any data. When the mayor proposes, for example, the city re-entering the county, they start yelling ‘well who’s going to pay for the unfunded pension liability?’ Well, you need an answer. And that work hasn’t been done.”

Asked if the endgame of the studies to come up with a concrete proposal to put up for a vote, Rice said that would be a “fabulous outcome.”

“Our opinions aren’t the same,” said Rice, referring to the board of directors. “And we have made a conscious decision that we are not going to be working toward a certain outcome. So we’re not.”

Dooley rivals sound off

Better Together’s entry into the public discourse comes as Dooley is facing a primary challenge from Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton. Stenger was one of a number of state, county and city elected officials that was on hand at the announcement.

When asked for his views about any sort of city-county accord when he announced his county executive bid, Stenger told reporters, “It’s a situation where we really need to have more facts to make a determination.”

Stenger said, “There are some studies that are currently being conducted. And I am very, very much open to hearing the results of those studies and studying the facts and the figures that result from those studies. But I think at this point, it’s a little premature to make some kind of endorsement or some kind of choice with regard to that, particularly that there really hasn’t been one particular plan that’s been set out.”

Green Park alderman Tony Pousosa – who announced he was running as a Republican for county executive – has taken a different tack.  

He said during his kickoff event that he was the “only candidate against the city-county merger.” He said that current “partnerships” between the two entities have been problematic, pointing to controversies, for instance, at the Missouri History Museum and the Science Center. Both receive funding from city and county residents through the Zoo-Museum District.

“There are just too many unknowns regarding this re-entry/partnership,” Pousosa said.

Pousosa’s stance corresponds with the St. Louis County Republican Central Committee, which has come out publicly against any merger or re-entry proposal.

And some city elected officials have also expressed skepticism or opposition of any re-entry proposal, including some African-American officials who fear their political clout might be diluted in St. Louis County.

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