Initial Thoughts on City-County Merger

Here we go. A discussion that is long overdue is getting some sunlight once again. A new plan will be revealed to bridge the disparities in the region and become a more efficient, single city vs. a patchwork of small towns, municipalities and vast swaths of unincorporated suburbs to the west of the once mighty city of St. Louis.

Better Together, a non-profit organization bankrolled by Rex Sinquefield and others will be unveiling the latest plan. The issue of a city-county merger has been discussed and studied by this group for three years. A City County Governance Task Force has been formed in response to these studies. It is endorsed by St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger.

We’re on the verge of the results being released to the public.

I will be reading everything I can and trying to follow this without getting too emotional and wound up. The haters in the small towns in the suburbs are going to get a big old bullhorn and we’re going to have to hear how terrible St. Louis is and why would “we” want anything to do with that failed city. Ballwin, Maplewood, Clayton, Chesterfield, Ferguson…we’ll hear from them all.

It ain’t gonna be pretty. The skeletons in the closets and the buried ugliness will come out.

The St. Louis bashing will begin as will the protectionism, racism and classism that is a cornerstone of many of the 88 or so cities in the County west of St. Louis. And St. Louis as well, but I think we’ll be overwhelmingly in favor of a merger. We have nothing to lose. The region will gain, but will the small towns, especially the monied ones give in to act regionally and….share….a concept that is NOT a cornerstone of St. Louis County culture.

I hope I’m wrong.

Say what you want about Sinquefield and Better Together’s motives, you have to respect they are trying to do something…anything.

It’s an unpopular subject for the County municipalities.

But, we need to get this out. We need to listen to the haters and be ready to intelligently debate and stay calm.

So, other than having bulldog skin, toughening up and not being so defensive when the County people start bashing St. Louis and wanting to use our name but give us nothing, building walls and making self-serving rules to advance or protect their small town at the cost of all those around them including St. Louis, we have to listen.

I’m more than a little concerned that this plan will be half-assed and that the state will get to decide if it passes or not. If this is some lame, incremental, token dissolving the city into the county with no real changes to tax districts, schools, government and services…it’ll fall flat.

My thoughts run deep, but I truly feel as a citizen of St. Louis and an employee in small towns in St. Louis County for over twenty years, we need less division.

We need to address crime and schools if we’re ever going to be one city with a brighter future. We need to address concentration of poverty. We need to address inequities and cordoning off areas as the forgotten spaces which are ignored.

Start with the police departments. We will never be one until the laws are enforced evenly across the region. St. Louis needs order as does Chesterfield and Clayton and Jennings. We need consistent enforcement and accountability. Less dumping problems in one area or another. Seeing St. Louis County municipalities dropping drug addicts and homeless people Downtown and taking off has got to end.

We have to think about the right way to police as a region, not a bunch of local yokel departments making up their own rules to under or over enforce, etc.

We need even and consistent law enforcement. Until then, it’ll always be us vs. them. The monied will always try to cordon off the non-monied in an area so they can say city A or area B is where you stay away from. Everything is fine HERE, just don’t go north of THERE or east of THERE.

This has to end. Concentration of crime/poverty doesn’t work. Go watch the Wire, Pruitt Igoe Myth or move to St. Louis and observe away.

Second most important item that will change the region for the better, a single taxing district for the schools. Until we have one school district or at least one way of collecting and funding schools across the region, there will always be the same old protectionism, racism, classism, ignorance and fear on display. Protectionism is selfish and this region is selfish.

The us vs. them mentality kills our region. It elevates one small town at the cost of another or even St. Louis, the biggest city in the region.

Kirkwood, Webster, Clayton, all these small towns have branded themselves as family-friendly, healthy schools. It’s their gold. Their property taxes reflect this goal. They are good at it. They will fight tooth and nail to not share what they have. One could predict it getting ugly.

My guess is that police and schools is too emotional and too heated to merge. I haven’t read the Better Together report, but I doubt the two main issues that plague our region will be addressed.

So what will this plan entail? Simply entering St. Louis as the 89th or so city in the county is a waste of time. Sure it'd get rid of some wasteful patronage jobs and offices, which would be much welcomed, but it won’t change the parochialism and protectionism.

Dissolving the cities in the County? Great start. Single taxing district? Hopefully, no more ridiculous competitions between two small towns to fight over a Menards or Wal-Mart with TIFs and other incentives to rake in sales tax dollars and keep them all to themselves.

Let’s share. Let’s do what’s best for the region. Let’s give the hundreds of thousands of people living in the small suburban towns in the County the opportunity to be genuine St. Louisans'. All for one and one for all.

Let’s do this. I will try to remain open minded. I have tried to look at the Board at Better Together with an open mind even though some of the same old power players and boring/aging people who are in part responsible for what we have now are there.

Of the 17 Board members on the Better Together website, 12 are men, 5 are women. 4 appear to be African American, the remaining white. I’d like to see more women to get closer to 50:50. Racially, white people make up ~70% of the nearly 1M people in the suburbs. St. Louis is ~50:50 black:white. I suppose a board of 76% white people is in the ballpark of representation when you consider the county.

I will try to trust this board and organization in that they are trying to move the needle in the right direction. I will not put on my conspiracy/power grab hat…I will try to think and occasionally write about this intelligently, honestly and thoughtfully.

I was encouraged by an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch by Tony Messenger that Wash U chancellor Mark Wrighton will be contributing to Better Together’s efforts as campaign chairman.

A setup in the article had a quote from Bill Maritz, a former board chairman at Maritz, which really sums up the problem we have in our region:

“Instead of being known as a community which is racially and economically divided with profound disparities, why not become a community where we forget race, color, creed and gender and become known as a big, important, open-minded, generous, kind and forward-looking, 21st-century American city?” Maritz asked. “Why not forget our pettiness, our animosities, our anxieties? Why not become one for the benefit of all?“

Here are some quotes from Wrighton from that article:

“When I came here, I immediately saw the challenge of the divide between the city and the county.“

Wrighton is from Boston, MA. I like this outsider perspective.

“As leader of one of the region’s largest employers, with about 15,000 employees and a similar number of students, plus about 30,000 Washington University alumni in and around St. Louis, Wrighton believes his experience will open doors to a lot of voters who, like him, came to St. Louis from elsewhere, and see a division that is unique among American cities.”

The article leaves us with this:

“Wrighton, who will not be paid for his efforts leading the Better Together campaign, is well aware of St. Louis’ history as a place where change is slow, where “incremental” proposals, like what many of the mayors are now advocating, are the standard fare.

It’s time to try something different, he says.

“The incremental approach is going to leave us with no momentum,” Wrighton says. “I believe we have to be bold and comprehensive. This is our chance to renew St. Louis.”

Cheers to that sentiment. We need this to be bold and sweeping, not piecemeal baby steps. This has to be a full blown merger. We need to be one city…St. Louis, not one St. Louis of ~300K people and 85+ cities and unincorporated areas that claim to be St. Louis but are separate in every conceivable way that defines a city.

But it will be hard not to keep my St. Louis soul out of this debate. I want St. Louis to be the premier spot in the region. I want it to be functional and healthy. Good cops, even enforcement of laws, streets that are not embarrassing, public services that are CONSISTENT across the region.

I’m worried though. I can’t help it. When I drive around St. Louis County, I’m not overly impressed. It could be anywhere USA. Suburbs are suburbs no matter where you are. I’m not sure a sense of place is respected as it can be in the city. Look at their library system. It seems to be run well, but they are big fans of demoing old libraries and replacing them with new construction. St. Louis County does not inspire when it comes to urban planning, historic renovation, etc. Look at downtown Clayton. It feels like Charlotte or Phoenix…boring. I don’t want our old city to be leveled for the County mentality of “new is good” with parking as a priority at every building.

We need a legit urban planning office for the entire region. We need the region to understand that bulldozing good architecture for “new” is not the answer to a special place.

We need to connect this region. We need to know our strength and connect and share them. Build them up. Fix the bad stuff, take it head-on.

I’m worried that the hard work and love that is on display amongst St. Louis citizens will be diluted or lost for the County mentality.

I have to be honest about this.

We’ll have to think big picture, strategically and not knee-jerk reactions that make St. Louis seem like protectionists not willing to budge.

I’ll try to do my part as a devoted St. Louis citizen.