It’s more than a local issue. The whole state of Missouri will vote on the proposed merger.
It’s time to start paying attention since all voters in Missouri will have a say in what appears to be an upcoming November 2020 vote to consolidate the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County into a new government structure for Missouri – a Metro City.
Since the proposal creates a new form of government, the State of Missouri constitution will require the issue be put to a vote of all Missourians. So Kansas Citians, pay attention, it appears you will have a say in deciding the future of St. Louis and the St. Louis region.
The campaign in support of the new Metro City is called “Better Together” and they’re promoting a vision of “a just and prosperous St. Louis region.”
The Concept Origins
In spring 2017, a citizen-led City-County Governance Task Force was formed to provide an independent perspective and offer recommendations on how St. Louis area might address its fragmented structure of governance. The area consist of nearly 100 different municipalities with separate governing bodies, police forces, courts and government planning and licensing structures.
Certainly, a unified government would save money and address issues of safety and crime. In addition, by working together, instead of against each other, certainly the entire district would benefit from the positive results. From the outset of its work in 2013, Better Together has sought to inspire the public by speaking in optimistic terms about its goals for a stronger, more unified and more equitable St. Louis.
This appeal is further emphasized through Better Together’s “Reimagine STL” theme.
“Imagine a world-class city we can all be proud to call home that competes on a national and an international stage,” the task force’s report says. “Imagine a safer, more prosperous, more secure city that takes care of everyone equitably and where everyone has the opportunity to achieve.”
Better Together’s proposal is certainly positive, but like earlier reports released by the Ferguson Commission and Washington University’s For The Sake Of All project (now Health Equity Works), it also gets tough and honest.
In some places the tone of the task force’s report is nothing short of menacing, as in this warning: “The status quo is a recipe for stagnation, decline, and widening disparities within our region.”
How it Will Work
As proposed, the new metropolitan city would be made up of the current City of St. Louis and St. Louis County. Instead of a mayor for St. Louis and all of the other municipalities in the county and St. Louis County executive the new Metro City would be governed by an elected Metro Mayor.
Voters would elect a 33-member metro council, whose members represent districts drawn by a nonpartisan expert and initially approved by the St. Louis County Council and St. Louis Board of Alderman.
Better Together would reduce the number of elected officials from 670 in the 89 municipalities, to one mayor and a 33-member council elected from each municipal district. There would be one police force, one court, and one consolidated planning, zoning and licensing process.
The task force’s plan is ambitious and complex. It already faces opposition from the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis and others who oppose a statewide vote and worry about forfeiting local control.
Saving St. Louis From Default
Any conversation about consolidation must address the near hopeless financial situation St. Louis is in. At present the city barely manages to pay its bills, even with $175 million in tax receipts each year. One goal of Better Together is to spare St. Louis City from defaulting, ultimately leading to bankruptcy.
“If the city goes bankrupt, the people of Washington, Springfield and everywhere else will have to pay for it,” said John Hancock, with Hancock & Prouty, the firm running Unite STL — the campaign for Better Together.
He compared the situation to that of Detroit, Mich., which declared bankruptcy in 2013. It took $200 million from the taxpayers of the rest of the state to recover.
Tax Dollar Savings
Michael Wrighton, Unite STL’s chairman, says the merger would also financially benefit everyone in the region.
The organization knows that if enough voters believe Metro City is simply a mechanism for siphoning their tax money to bail out the City of St. Louis or a distant suburb without being accountable for how that money is spent, its prospects are sunk. So, from its inception Better Together has been transparent regarding the fact that its work is not only about civic ideals, but about tax dollars and where they might be saved.
The cost saving figures Better Together offers up are impressive: an eventual operating surplus for the combined Metro City of around $250 million a year, even with an initial property tax that’s lower than the current St. Louis County rate. To put $250 million in perspective, it’s about half the size of the City of St. Louis’s main operating fund.
Better Together says the new Metro City could gradually phase out the present city’s 1% earnings tax and still use the proceeds to pay off the city’s roughly $700 million in debt, including pension liabilities, over seven years.
Improved Police and Courts
Better Together cites criminal justice reform as a top priority of unification. Thanks to Ferguson, virtually everyone in America knows about problems with policing in small St. Louis towns and of cities that use their police departments and courts as sources of income and off of the Backs of poor and minority residents.
Under the proposed Metro City concept, the City would have one “accredited” police department and 70 plus municipal courts would consolidate to one.
“We really do believe one police department will make it easier to police the city,” Hancock said, “and St. Louis County has one of the best (police departments) in the country.”
Hancock said anyone driving from Franklin County to Lambert International Airport now drives through more than 15 departments along the way with each of these municipalities having their own courts.
One of the biggest push backs of the plan is that there would need to be a statewide vote, meaning voters in Kansas City, Rolla and Springfield could decide the fate of the St. Louis region.
Recently, area mayors formed their own group, with their own plan, in opposition to Better Together.
As mentioned above, St. Louis County local police departments will consolidate into one metro-police department. Many of those departments are not on board with the idea.