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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.

New talk of city-county merger appears to energize both sides

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger take questions after announcing their support for a task force to examine government spending.
Wayne Pratt | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger take questions after announcing their support for a task force to examine government spending.

Updated Tuesday, Dec. 12: With the Missouri General Assembly slated to convene in a few weeks, the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis is scrambling in case state lawmakers decide to intervene in the region’s long-standing debate over a possible merger of St. Louis and St. Louis County.

The St. Louis County Council voted unanimously Tuesday night in favor of a resolution -- signed by at least 50 area municipalities -- that opposes any sort of  statewide vote on the matter. The St. Louis Board of Aldermen could face a similar request shortly.

The league is hoping to pre-empt any possible pro-merger action by Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard. Members remain abuzz over comments the Joplin Republican made to St. Louis Public Radio a few months ago, when he said it’s time the General Assembly weigh in on the merger topic.  

“The county has all these municipalities and all these little fiefdoms, that someday guys like me from rural Missouri are going to say, ‘Enough’s enough,’ “ Richard said. “You guys are out of money, keep raising taxes. I think that’s not in the best interest of Missourians. We’re going to have to start merging.”

Richard explained last week that he’s simply calling for state lawmakers to discuss the idea, and he’s not endorsing any specific proposal. Richard emphasized that he certainly would want to hear from local officials and lawmakers.

Still, the municipal league is alarmed. That’s why it has drawn up the resolution that it presented to the  County Council on Tuesday, and plans to offer shortly to the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.

The resolution asserts that a possible statewide vote might be looming, and that it is “a scheme’’ to circumvent merger opponents in the city and county.

Area officials remain divided

Pat Kelly, League executive director, said that the fate of any merger idea should be left up to St. Louis and St. Louis County residents – not the state of Missouri.

“It’s kind of the foundation of our country, that your vote should count in the areas that affect you,” Kelly said. “That’s kind of the whole reason for the Boston Tea Party, right?”

He got a sympathetic reception from County Council Chairman Sam Page, a Democrat from Creve Coeur. “I would hope that county voters would be able to decide their own fate, not the state legislature,’’ Page  said.

But St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson doesn’t see the threat.

She welcomes Richard’s interest in the merger debate, and said it shows state legislative leaders recognize the importance of the St. Louis region to the state. Among other things, the mayor said there’s no question that the St. Louis region is the “economic engine’’ for the state.

Krewson has long been a supporter of government consolidation, pointing to the region’s dozens of police and fire departments and “89 or 90 municipalities.”

“We’re spending a lot of money delivering services,” the mayor added.

County Council Chairman Page agrees. “I do think there are some opportunities to combine services with the city of St. Louis,” he said.

Does ‘fussing’ hurt region’s clout?

Krewson adds that the region’s divisions do more than cost money.

“We fuss among ourselves about where should this project go or that project go. Whether a project should go in Clayton, downtown or Hazelwood or Wildwood,” the mayor said.

Krewson maintains that all that bickering is preventing area officials of focusing instead on how to best compete against other metropolitan areas, such as Louisville, Kansas City or Indianapolis.

County Executive Steve Stenger observed that since taking office in 2015: “I have seen firsthand some limitations that our regional governmental structures place on us.”

That’s long been the message of Better Together, a nonprofit group set up several years ago to promote regional consolidation. Its financial backers include financier Rex Sinquefield, a fan of some sort of merger, such as allowing the city of St. Louis to re-enter the county. Others have floated combining St. Louis County’s municipalities and St. Louis into a “mega-county.”

Better Together held public hearings this fall to gauge the public’s interest. Nancy Rice, Better Together’s executive director, acknowledges that the public is divided. But she says there has been a common thread.

“We have found a very strong appetite among a reasonably good size of the population for change,” Rice said. “Especially among young people.”

Stenger says he’s withholding judgment until Better Together issues its report sometime next year.  “While I’ve heard many possible solutions suggested, we need a deep dive and thorough analysis in order to have an open and intelligent discussion about this important issue,” Stenger said.

Merging services not so controversial

St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby, a Democrat from University City, says she’s not hearing much support for any sort of merger.  Her district includes many African-American municipal officials who have publicly voiced concern that a merger could dilute the region’s African-American political power.

“I think there should be more education around the whole thing,” Erby said. “But right now, when I talk to my constituents, when they hear ‘merge,’ they’re not in favor of it.”

That doesn’t surprise national urban policy expert David Rusk, who’s the former mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was in St. Louis last week to offer advice to civic leaders about ways to improve regional cooperation.

Rusk said most successful city-county mergers – notably, the city of Indianapolis and Marion County – involved large tracts of undeveloped land and not too many smaller municipalities.

In contrast, St. Louis County already is heavily developed. With so many municipalities that have been entrenched for decades, Rusk believes it’s unrealistic to expect the region’s fragmented governmental structure to change much.

“You really shouldn’t concern yourselves with trying to formally merge governments,” he said. “Rather, devise ways in which they can work collaboratively together.”

That’s a message that many members of the region’s Municipal League might be able to get behind.


Follow Jo Mannies on Twitter: @jmannies

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.