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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 County Executive Candidates Shy Away From Backing City-County Union

Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio

Talk about ending the "Great Divorce" between St. Louis and St. Louis County has churned on for years. But discussions have heated up in recent months.

The issue has become more pronounced after the formation of Better Together, a group studying the possibility of a city-county merger. The organization's studies have raised questions about whether the county has too many municipalities, fire protection districts and police departments.

It’s possible the group’s examinations of the region’s setup could lead to a formal proposal. But none of the four major candidates for St. Louis County executive are verbally committing to a formal union between the city and county. Nor or they advocating full-scale consolidation of local governments.

None of this surprises University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor Terry Jones. He said county executives are much more willing to support regional cooperation in the abstract than a specific proposal.

“People like to have the rhetoric of regionalism,” said Jones, who wrote a book on the fragmented nature of the region. “As you soon as you put any kind of detailed plan out there, there are more people raising opposition to it than they are lending support to it.”

Wait and see

St. Louis is one of the few cities in the country that acts an independent county. Proponents of a city-county merger have argued that keeping the two jurisdictions separate is inefficient, and that ending the divide could lead to streamlined government, cost savings and a more enticing business climate. 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley talks with Jeff Rainford, chief of staff for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. Dooley has emphasized his cooperation with city leaders, but has generally shied away from backing or opposing a specific city-county merger concept.

Better Together formed to study the divide between the jurisdictions. The findings could eventually be used to formulate a reunification plan, although the group’s leaders have emphasized that they have no preconceived proposal.

That absence of a specific proposal has caused the two main Democratic contenders – St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton – to hold off on backing the idea of a city-county merger.

Dooley has continually emphasized his cooperation with St. Louis, including a recent merger of the two entities’ economic development agencies. He’s even boasted about his endorsements from five St. Louis mayors, including current Mayor Francis Slay.

But Dooley says he wants to wait until Better Together finishes its work in 2015 before commenting on a specific proposal. Besides, he said, voters – not the county executive or mayor – will ultimately decide the fate of such a plan.

“I want this conversation to be data-driven,” Dooley said earlier this year. “And have an intelligent conversation with facts and figures. This is what this means.”

Stenger is taking a similar approach. He says there’s been lots of talk about theoretical concepts, including combining city and county governments. The St. Post-Dispatch Editorial Page, for instance, has strongly advocated blending St. Louis' and St. Louis County’s governments into a singular entity, perhaps similar to Indianapolis’ UniGov. 

Credit Bill Greenblatt, UPI
Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, says it doesn't make much sense to opine on a theoretical city-county merger proposal. He says he'd rather wait until a specific plan comes forward.

But Stenger said it doesn’t make a lot of sense to make a firm policy declaration until he has a tangible proposal to consider.

“We have to take a very close look at what’s being proposed,” Stenger said. “Several proposals have been made. Some are being called mergers, some are being called consolidation. But  we need a real definition of what we’re talking about. And then I think all of the impacts need to be weighed.”

Dooley has said he’d have “no problem” if the city wanted to “re-enter the county as a municipality.” He’s said in that scenario, the city would have autonomy like any other city in the county – such as Florissant or Clayton.

The extent to which the county would take over some services, such as roadwork or parks, remains to be seen.

Just say no

The two Republican candidates in the county executive’s race – state Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, and Green Park Alderman Tony Pousosa – are taking a much dimmer view of a possible merger. 

Credit Tim Bommel, House Communications
House Budget Chairman Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, has said a city-county merger is not a practical option.

Stream said neither the city nor the county is in a position to join forces. He added he’d rather focus on fixing problems within St. Louis County.

“If there are places where we can combine services that save the taxpayers of St. Louis County money, then I think we ought to look seriously into those combined services,” Stream said. “But I just don’t see at this point in time that it’s practical to consider merging the city and the county.”

Stream also said that the county’s large number of local governments would be a major impediment to a city-county merger, especially one involving consolidation.

“I don’t think you can have a city-county merger until we’ve really resolved the whole issue of all of the municipalities in St. Louis County,” Stream said. “And that is something that is very, very complex, controversial. I just don’t see it happening in the near future.”

Opposition to a city-county merger is a major part of Pousosa's campaign. Green Park, where he is an alderman, was one of several cities expressing opposition to the idea.

Pousosa said that  “municipal government is more responsive, even though some people may have disagreements with the municipalities they live in.”

“If the city and county become one entity, I believe that county residents or the new St. Louis city residents — their voices will never be heard from again,” Pousosa said.

No surprises

Jones said the candidates’ take on a merger proposal is in line with recent history. 

Credit Courtesy of UMSL
University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor Terry Jones

He said “steadfast opposition” plays well in a GOP primary, especially since the county’s Republican voters are more likely to oppose a city-county merger.

And he said Democratic county executives like Dooley and Buzz Westfall have typically supported regional cooperation in general terms. But he added they’ve usually avoided backing specific proposals, especially consolidation efforts that may spark backlash among local officials.

For instance, Pasadena Hills mayor Geno Salvati said few of his residents have expressed interest in combining other regional governments. He says his neighbors are “happy with a more local and close government.”

In the end, the candidates’ stands on the issue may be relatively symbolic. Any proposal – whether it’s the city re-entering the county or a more expansive consolidation – will require voter approval. The only thing a county executive can do is to use the bully pulpit to support or oppose a proposal.

Still, Jones said, a county executive’s support of “incremental” cooperative efforts – such as combining the city and county economic development agencies – is crucial, since they need to sign off on such efforts. And he expects that whoever wins in November will continue to pursue cooperation with the city.

“What’s happened roughly with Gene McNary in the '80s is that county executives rhetorically are regional,” Jones said. “So they talk about the virtues of doing things together as a region. Part of that, as I analyze it, is a function of the county being in one sense, by far, the largest local government in the region and the county executive being noticeably the most powerful in terms of legal authority local elected official in the region.”

“There’s a desire to say, we should be more regional and, by the way, I’m the biggest fish in the regional pond,” he added.

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