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Commentary: Inefficiency Can't Be Avoided With This Many Municipalities In St. Louis County

st. louis County municipalities map
Brent Jones | St. Louis Public Radio

The Ferguson Commission appointed by Gov. Nixon recently got off to a bumpy start with meetings that were interrupted by audience members. In spite of this, there is much to be optimistic about regarding the commission. It has been given wide latitude to study the problems that afflict the region. And the process should produce recommendations that will help provide solutions, if they are actually enacted by state and local governments; a very big “if.”

Nixon charged the commission with examining all the conditions that contributed to the events in Ferguson, not just the toxic police-community relations. This is the right approach; but there is a very real danger that the commission could lose its focus in dealing with a plethora of issues. This would result in a less-than-desirable outcome.

One condition that contributed to the Ferguson unrest and has only received sporadic attention is the multitude of municipalities in St. Louis County and their overburdened fiscal systems. With 90 municipalities in St. Louis County, some are so small that they appear as just tiny squares on maps.

The sheer number of municipalities means that government services are fragmented, which means a lot of cities are performing the same services for small populations. Thus separate police forces serve communities as small as Country Club Hills (pop. 1,264) and as large as Chesterfield (pop. 47,484). Obviously this results in tremendous duplication of effort, which reduces efficiency and drives up the costs of providing police services throughout the county.

Along with the proliferation of public services is the separate revenue system in each city financing the spending. Cities rely heavily on sales taxes in St. Louis County but not every municipality is equally well-positioned to collect revenues from this source. As much as every locality would like to have a Galleria, as Richmond Heights does, most cannot.

As the economy dips, revenues decline. There is intense competition among municipalities for a shrinking share of the revenue pie. This is exacerbated by population loss. There are mechanisms to ease the disparity in sales tax collections, but these do not come close to erasing the difference.

The advantages of keeping this form of government are increasingly outweighed by the disadvantages. As a region, we can no longer afford to have 90 municipalities. What appeared to be responsive, democratic government to our ancestors is now unresponsive to the needs of a significant proportion of the populace and undemocratic in the sense that in some places like Ferguson the municipal government is not a true reflection of the community that it is supposed to govern.

Residents of St. Louis County pay a hidden cost for having so many inefficient governments. It creates perverse incentives to obtain revenues in any way you can such as through court fees that unfairly target African Americans and the less affluent. One reform that the Ferguson Commission should seriously consider is consolidating the county’s many court systems. In the long run, consolidating municipalities would be best but I’m not holding my breath.

Bob Cropf is a professor of political science at Saint Louis University.