Minutes before he took the oath of office, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger waded into the thorny thicket that is municipal consolidation.
“Certainly I can’t order municipalities to merge or join,” said Stenger when asked about the topic by a reporter on New Year’s Day. “But I can certainly encourage it. And in some of our smaller municipalities — where we’ve seen them deriving much of their revenue from traffic tickets and ordinance violations — they might not survive without those ordinance violations. It’s important in those instances (to) encourage, at a minimum, consolidation of some services and perhaps of the municipalities themselves.
“It’d be easier to do business here in St. Louis,” he added. “It would be better really for St. Louis County if that were to happen.”
Consolidation, which has bedeviled county executives for decades, is one of those issues that have come to the forefront since Michael Brown’s death. Some state lawmakers recently proposed eliminating small cities by fiat, while local and national publications have toyed with the unlikely prospect of melding the city and the county’s municipalities into one city.
But advocating for and actually accomplishing consolidation are completely different propositions, as Stenger found out during his first county council meeting as county executive.
There, African-American mayors of small north county towns pushed back against the idea that they shouldn’t exist. It was a backlash of sorts against what they see as an unrelenting attack on them from policymakers, especially on the issues of municipal courts and policing standards.
“We are all voted in by the people of our cities that believe in our leadership,” said Cool Valley Mayor Viola Murphy. “People are making decisions concerning our cities without even having a conversation with any of us before decisions are being made,”
Stenger’s earlier comments on disincorporation appeared to strike a nerve with local elected officials like Greendale Mayor Monica Huddleston. She described Stenger’s views as “not well thought out.”
Huddleston questioned “why all of a sudden is St. Louis County folks want to talk differently now about consolidation, as if that’s the best thing since sliced bread?” She alluded to how the county already has to provide municipal services, including trash and snowplowing, to hundreds of thousands of people in unincorporated areas.
“St. Louis County has quite a bit to chew over right now without absorbing more areas to try and figure out how they’re going to deliver services,” she said. “A lot of work, a lot of preparation, a lot of study would have to be done first. So why would jump from that to ‘some of them need to merge'? When you haven’t even studied what that would do the residents who voted those municipalities in in the first place.”
Bel-Nor Board of Trustees Chairman Kevin Buchek said that the 24 cities that make up the Normandy School District, known as 24:1, have been working together in terms of municipal services. That, he said, is evidence that the cities know how to cooperate and function properly.
“We have contracts for shared police services, contracts for shared plowing, shared tree maintenance,” Buchek said. “So these things are already happening; I just don’t think people realize they’re happening. And they’re going to continue to happen. And rather than attack us and force things on us, I’d rather have people converse with us and have us part of the solution.”
After Tuesday’s council meeting, Stenger emphasized to reporters the 24:1 municipalities do “fantastic work” that is “exactly the kind of work that needs to be going on when we talk about consolidation of services.” He indicated that none of those municipalities should be pushed into disincorporating, adding: “I don’t think out of my office you’re going to see me asking viable municipalities to dissolve “
“The St. Louis County executive is not going to be the office that picks who should dissolve and who shouldn’t and who the winners and who the losers are,” Stenger said. “[This office] is not empowered to do that. I will encourage and help on issues like consolidation of services. I think that’s really important. I think policing services and establishing some uniform standards that can be achieved and are achievable are important. I think that uniform zoning would be important and uniform permitting process are important.”
Again, though, he emphasized: “I’m not looking to push anyone into dissolution.”
Asked whether these comments are consistent with his statements before he was inaugurated, Stenger said he would “use my bully pulpit to encourage consolidation of services.” He also said he would advocate for consolidation when it’s glaringly obvious, such as a situation in Uplands Park.
“In certain circumstances where, perhaps, there might be a municipality — not necessarily within that 24:1 group — but another municipality that’s not making it on its own, I would use the bully pulpit in that instance," Stenger said. “It’s really dictated by the circumstances. But just as a general matter, I’m not looking to form huge consolidations or anything like that.”
A Matter Of Priorities
After last week’s county council meeting, Stenger touched on another polarizing issue — a potential merger of St. Louis and St. Louis County. While he repeated his statement that he would come up with an opinion on the matter when a concrete plan comes forward, he stressed it was an issue that “very low” on his priority list.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay has been a bit more upfront and optimistic about his support for the city's becoming a municipality within St. Louis County — so much so that he referred to the county during his latest inauguration as a place "that we confidently expect to reenter in this decade."
But during a recent appearance on "St. Louis on the Air," Slay he wasn’t surprised that the vexing city-county merger issue wasn’t a priority for Stenger.
“That’s expected at this point,” Slay said. “He’s got a lot of priorities. And I can understand why this is not his No. 1 priority. But as he gets into the office and learns more about the issue and we talk more about it, we’ll have discussions about it. And how that goes, we’ll find out.”
Slay, though, reiterated that the issue “is important for the competitiveness of our region.”
“It’s important in terms of making sure we use the best and more efficient use of our tax dollars,” Slay said. “And it’s important in dealing with issues that have come to the surface as a result of Ferguson. You know, you see all these municipalities and you look at the various municipal courts ... I know that Steve Stenger is certainly aware of all those issues and I’ll be looking forward to talking to him.”
Slay backed Charlie Dooley in the Democratic primary for county executive that Stenger ultimately won. Some members of his political operation assisted Dooley in that campaign. But Slay expects he will have a “great relationship” with Stenger, adding this support for Dooley “doesn’t mean I don’t like Steve Stenger or can’t work with him.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.