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Hardly anyone contends that all, or even most, of the St. Louis metro area’s problems would evaporate if the city of St. Louis merged with St. Louis County or re-entered the county as yet one more municipality.
Both a merger and re-entry are unlikely, but the conversation continues because few believe the current jurisdictional jigsaw puzzle is ideal, and many think the multiplicity of local governmental entities is an obstacle for better, more efficient regional cooperation.
One new wrinkle in the 138-year-old debate is that recent demographic data is beginning to show a drift from the familiar stereotype of a beleaguered central city looking to regain prosperity by linking up with its surrounding suburbs.
Todd Swanstrom, the E. Desmond Lee Professor of Community Collaboration and Public Policy at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, sounded a cautionary tone for St. Louis County, though he prefaced his remarks by saying, as an academic, making a prediction is often ill-advised. “Thirty years from now, the county may look back and say it wished it had joined the city,” Swanstrom said, citing rising poverty figures and stagnant population trends for St. Louis County. Swanstrom made his comments during a presentation at a recent, day-long symposium at Saint Louis University School of Law titled “United We Stand and United We Fall: The Reunification of St. Louis City and County.”
Swanstrom expressed awareness of the political obstacles to a merger or re-entry, saying he was worried that too much time and effort might be spent on such plans. “There’s only so much oxygen in the room for these kinds of debates,” Swanstrom said. After the symposium, he said that he feared the “whole city-county merger talk is an exercise in futility” and that “civic energy” would be “much better spent talking about how to tackle specific issues.”
During the symposium, former U.S. Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the event's keynote speaker, stressed the fiscal and economic development advantages of a merger or some type of governmental restructuring. Local officials and experts defined and discussed how changes might affect the current political predicament. Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley both spoke, saying they support structural change. They both emphasized the need to compete with other cities as one urban area.
Lugar cited his experience as mayor of Indianapolis, which merged its city and county into a “unigov” approach by legislative action without a popular vote. He said it enhanced the federal funds that the larger urban entity received, rising to about $1,000 per capita, compared to $400 per capita in Gary, Ind. Lugar said having one governmental unit made it easier for economic development and to compete with other metro areas.
Joe Reagan, president and chief executive officer of the St. Louis Regional Chamber, previously held a similar position in Louisville. Reagan said it was the fourth attempt that merged Louisville with Jefferson County, and the other municipalities in the county retained their status. Previous attempts to merge took place in 1956, 1982, and 1983, before a vote in 2000 succeeded.
When asked why people are opposed to merger or re-entry, Slay replied that “some people are comfortable where they are, and they are afraid of change.” Dooley said, “If we’re going to be competitive in the 21st century, we’ve got to be different.”
As part of a different panel, St. Louis treasurer Tishaura Jones said she was “neutral” when it came to a city-county merger or the city re-entering the county as one of its many municipalities. Jones, a former state representative who was elected citywide as treasurer in 2012, said even a dramatic change in governmental boundaries would not change some political realities. “If we merge, it doesn’t make a difference on the state level, where primarily the issue is rural versus urban," she said. "We’d still be arguing the same thing."
She said opposition to city-charter reform in 2004 was in part driven by departments within City Hall that performed county functions. “One of the reasons they opposed it was because jobs would be eliminated,” she said. That concern would not spur her to oppose changes if she thought the changes would be beneficial.
The old stereotype of an inefficient City Hall loaded down with patronage jobs is no longer true, she said. In the 1980s, the city had about 14,000 employees, 11 citywide offices, and 28 aldermen. Currently, the city has about 7,000 employees, nine citywide offices, and, after the 2020 census, 14 aldermen.
One concern that Jones had is that a change in city-county relationships might be a “veiled attempt to eliminate the city’s earnings tax, which supports a third of the city’s budget.” She would oppose that idea.
Swanstrom pointed to a national trend of re-urbanization that showed in 2011, for the first time in 90 years, central cities grew faster than combined suburbs. The model of a troubled central city surrounded by a thriving ring of suburban communities is reversing, Swanstrom said, pointing to Census data that showed per-capita income in St. Louis County dropped by 10 percent from 2000 to 2010, while it rose in the city by 1.6 percent. In the previous 30 years, per capita income rose 50.2 percent in the county, compared to 36.6 percent in the city.
The population slide in the city has slowed almost to a halt, while the population increase in the county has stalled. Poverty also has moved to the suburbs. “There are more poor people in the county than the city,” Swanstrom said. “In the county, the number is growing rapidly, and in the city it’s leveling off.”
Slightly more than 100,000 people in the county live in poverty; in the city, it’s closer to 80,000. In the past 10 years, more Census tracts in the county have passed the threshold of 20 percent poor than the city, where several Census tracts flipped in the other direction, dipping below the 20-percent poverty level.
“There are many adverse effects of concentrated poverty,” said Swanstrom, co-author of Place Matters, a book about the effects of urban economic segregation. He pointed to the central corridor as a strength of the region, extending from downtown to the Central West End to Clayton and beyond. He said the area was “rich in institutions,” had demographic diversity, and was not defined by governmental boundaries. The challenge, he said, was to bridge the areas to the north and south of the central corridor, a split that “bisects the boundaries of the city and county,” and to address the “spatial inequalities” that exist.
On the same panel with Swanstrom was Virvus Jones, former alderman and comptroller for the city and father to Tishaura Jones. He emphasized that governmental and political officials often steer clear of difficult challenges, preferring to concentrate on goals and issues where they can show progress.
“In St. Louis, we’ve done the easy projects,” the former comptroller said. “In urban triage, we don’t treat the chest wound; we treat the cut finger.” He said it was no mystery that the central corridor thrived because that area was the recipient of government resources, transportation projects, and tax subsidies.
Virvus Jones also brought up education reform, a topic that was not on the agenda, because he said it was more important than talk of a merger or re-entry. The fate of many children is determined by the ZIP code in which they were born because that defines what public schools they attend, Jones said.
Jones disagreed with those who say public education isn’t about money, pointing to a private school such as Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School, which charges $23,000 a year for tuition and a public district like Clayton that spends more per student than Normandy, which is unaccredited. “And these are motivated children coming from stable families,” he said. Jones said a unified school district with a shared tax base could better address these problems.
“The biggest problem affecting economic disparity is educational disparity,” Jones said. “If we don’t have an educated population, we’re going to continue to have a severely disaffected population. Fix that, and the rest of the problems will go away.”
The motivation for a city-county merger or re-entry primarily was about global competitiveness or jobs, he said.
“All I see this is about is economic development,” Jones said. “It’s not dealing with economic disparity—that’s the bigger issue."