By ALAN J. ORTBALS
A group called Better Together has proposed consolidating St. Louis City and St. Louis County and that’s not sitting well in Metro West.
In 1876, the “Great Divorce” separated St. Louis City from St. Louis County and, in doing so, locked its boundaries in forever. This has been hugely detrimental to the city and the entire region. Better Together was formed in 2013 to examine the structure and function of the city and county to try to answer the question, “Why does a region with world-class resources struggle to thrive?”
The answer lies in the dysfunction created by 90 independent municipalities, 43 fire districts, 57 police departments, 81 municipal courts and 52,000 pages of ordinances. This mess, they say, has led to a situation in which intergovernmental competition takes precedence over regional growth and an inability to formulate and execute a plan for regional success.
This Balkanization divides cities into haves and have nots. A wealthy city like Des Peres, for example, doesn’t even levy a property tax yet has lots of amenities and free services. A poor city like Pine Lawn derives most of its revenue from court fines and fees.
The disparity in wealth causes cities to compete aggressively for sales tax dollars. Over the past 20 years more than $2 billion has been thrown at developers, much of it to lure retail developments, moving retail sales and sales tax dollars from one municipality to another.
Better Together’s research shows that this cornucopia of governments costs the taxpayers approximately $1,800 per capita, far higher than consolidated communities like Indianapolis and Louisville, wasting over $750 million annually on duplicate government services.
And then there’s the crime problem. St. Louis, a city with a small geography and a high poverty rate, leads the list of large cities for murders per capita. County residents tend to consider that as someone else’s problem but it impacts all of us on both sides of the river. You want to attract young professionals? A 60-second search on Google pops up the “Murder Capital” label. You think you’re going to compete for things like Amazon’s HQ2? Site selectors are probably aware of it without even looking.
Put it all together and we have a metropolitan region that has a stagnant population with little or no job growth. This needs to change. Better Together has come to the conclusion that the way to affect that change is through consolidation. I agree.
Better Together’s plan would consolidate the city and county; create a “metro city” over all with one mayor and 33 council members. While existing municipalities would continue, they would lose authority over sales taxes, roads, courts, police and economic development.
This plan strikes at all of the problems listed above. Rather than “Murder Capital,” St. Louis would fall way down the list, creating a new image overnight. Because there would be one police force, resources could be better allocated and focused on high crime areas.
It would also eliminate the competition between the municipalities as there would be no sales tax to fight over. Instead, you’d have one, 1.3-million population city, focused and organized to pursue true economic development.
And tiny burgs would no longer be speed traps as it removes their need for and dependence on traffic fines and fees to balance the books.
Better Together is calling for a statewide referendum, planned for November 2020. But, before its plan was even formally announced, the St. Louis Council of Mayors flat out rejected it, calling instead for the creation of a Board of Freeholders to come up with a competing proposal. That plan, if they ever came up with one, would be subject only to a local vote.
Frankly, I think the call for a Board of Freeholders is nothing more than a way of looking like they’re doing something while intending to do nothing. That approach has been used before without success. Many object to Better Together’s call for a statewide vote rather than deciding the matter locally, but I think that’s the only way it will succeed. Too many people see things in very narrow terms of what’s in their own individual, short-term interest rather than take a long-term, big-picture view.
There are a million and one details to be worked out, but I think they need to give this plan a chance. If you want a better St. Louis, one that’s able to compete nationally for economic development and provide better services for less money, you need to support Better Together. Anything else is a vote for the status quo.
Alan J. Ortbals is president and publisher of the Illinois Business Journal. He can be reached at [email protected] or (618) 659-1997.
By ALAN J. ORTBALS