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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.

Stenger: St. Louis County off the hook in paying for riverfront football stadium

A rendering of the St. Louis riverfront stadium.
Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
A rendering of the St. Louis riverfront stadium.

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger says county taxpayers will no longer be asked to foot some of the bill for a new football stadium.

It’s a potentially complicating factor in conjuring up public financing to build the open-air facility on St. Louis' riverfront.

With the St. Louis Rams threatening to bolt to Los Angeles, policymakers have come up with a proposal to build a roughly $1 billion stadium in St. Louis. As originally conceived, the stadium would effectively be a public-private partnership, with the state, St. Louis County and St. Louis paying off bonds over the next few decades.

The plan called for “extending” bonds that are currently paying off the Edward Jones Dome. And while some policymakers have said that move wouldn’t require legislative action or ballot initiatives on a state, county or city level, there have been widespread calls from across the political spectrum for votes to occur anyway.

Stenger said on Tuesday that the county would no longer be part of financing the new stadium. County taxpayers would have contributed $6 million a year to pay off the construction of such a facility. 

County Executive Steve Stenger at his inauguration 1.1.15
Credit Bill Greenblatt | UPI | File photo
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger

The Democratic official said Gov. Jay Nixon’s aides alerted members of his staff of the decision earlier this month.

“We received a communication in my office on March 20 – I think it was last week – from the governor’s office,” Stenger said. “And the governor’s office advised us at that time that St. Louis County’s participation in the new stadium would not be necessary financially.”

Stenger was asked about stadium funding last week after the St. Louis County Council’s meeting.He didn’t give any indication about Nixon’s communication with his office, but did say “there’s been no formal request made, we don’t know if St. Louis County would even be called to participate in that situation.”

Nixon's spokesman Scott Holste said in an e-mail that St. Louis County’s role “relates to their continued support of the existing dome and convention center, which must remain an important asset to the region.”

“We continue to make progress on a clear path forward to build a new stadium in St. Louis, consistent with the principles the governor has laid out including protecting taxpayers, creating jobs and revitalizing a distressed area,” Holste said.

Dave Peacock, one of the members of a task force pushing for a new stadium, said in a statement to St. Louis Public Radio that “we have studied numerous financing proposals over the past month and anticipate considering additional financing concepts in the weeks ahead.”  

Some theorize that the stadium proposal from former Anheuser-Busch President Dave Peacock and attorney Bob Blitz is aimed at satisfying NFL relocation bylaws. Those effectively state that an owner must exhaust all options before moving.
Credit Bill Greenblatt, UPI
Dave Peacock is part of a two-person task force aiming at keeping the Rams in St. Louis.

“In short, just as the stadium design has evolved over the past several months and will continue to progress, so too will the process to determine the appropriate financing plan to bring this project to life,” Peacock said. “We continue to build excellent momentum, but what remains the same is the positive impact a new riverfront stadium will have on our economy, in the creation of jobs and ensuring that St. Louis remains an NFL city, today and always.” 

While Nixon’s office and Peacock expressed optimism about the stadium project, questions remain about how they’ll pay the public portion of the cost without St. Louis County.

After all, if St. Louis County doesn’t end up paying off any of the bonds for the new stadium,  St. Louis or the state may have to make up the difference. And state lawmakers have expressed skepticism about providing more funds to build a stadium.

“I have very deep concerns about publicly financing another stadium,” said House Majority Leader Todd Richardson on a recent edition of the Politically Speaking podcast.

When asked whether the city or state would be tasked with paying off more of the new stadium, Holste said: “Again, the role for St. Louis County only relates to their continued support of the existing dome and convention center.  We continue to make progress on a clear path forward to build a new stadium in St. Louis.”

Stenger said he didn’t get any indication from Nixon’s office about whether the city or county would pay for more of the stadium. When asked if he thought the project could still go forward, he replied: “It sounds like that’s the case.”

“It sounds like the governor believes that this is in the best interest of the deal that this is the route they go,” Stenger said.

Bolting from Better Together

Meanwhile, Stenger has split with Better Together, a group gathering facts and data for a potential merger of St. Louis and St. Louis County.  

Credit Courtesy of Better Together

For more than a year, Better Together has released reports on the county’s finances, health departments and economic development efforts. They also put out a particularly critical report of the county’s various municipal courts as the entities engendered scrutiny after Michael Brown’s shooting death.

As St. Louis County executive, Stenger was ex officio or non-voting member of the group’s board – which he effectively inherited from his predecessor, former St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley. The group complied with Stenger’s request to have his name removed from Better Together’s website.

Stenger said that the group appeared to be predisposed toward merging St. Louis and St. Louis County. That posture, he said, clashes with his philosophical views on the issue.

“The name implies – and all of the conclusions and all the studies implies – that they’re a group that’s in favor of a merger,” Stenger said. “And as I’ve said all along, this is something that requires a great deal of analysis. And I don’t want to be associated with a group that has as its mission the merger of the city and county. I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to do that. And I’m not going to do that.”

In a statement, Better Together executive director Nancy Rice said, “The beginning of a new administration can be chaotic and we understand how our outreach to the county executive’s office may have not reached him.” She went on to say that a packet including a "welcome letter," meeting dates and other information related to the board was sent to Stenger in January.

“Better Together’s mission is to study the delivery of local municipal services to St. Louis residents, review best practices and share that information with the public,” Rice said. “Some of our findings have been dramatic, and we understand that can make people uncomfortable. It’s our hope that we can work together, as a region, to find solutions to such problems as the abuse of court fines and fees. We look forward to working with Mr. Stenger and his representatives in the future.”

Stenger told reporters in January that any merger between St. Louis and St. Louis County wouldn’t be a particularly high priority for his administration. It’s a distinctly different posture from St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, who said during his most latest inauguration that he wanted St. Louis and St. Louis County to reunite somehow by the end of the decade. 

Relations between St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and Reed have improved a bit since they ran against each other in 2013.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay has been upfront about his desire for some sort of merger between St. Louis and St. Louis County.

(Slay’s Twitter account also re-tweeted a St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial that advocating combining the county’s municipalities with St. Louis to form one, big city. Though, as is the case with most re-tweets, it’s unclear whether the move constituted an endorsement.)

For his part, Stenger said he expected a “mega-merger” to encounter major opposition – especially one that consolidated the county’s school districts.

He also emphasized that any merger proposal has to be decided by city and county voters – not through a statewide initiative.

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