Has Indianapolis’ massive merger with its suburbs back in the 1970s saved taxpayers tons of money? Or has the public’s voice been muted by the huge city government that’s replaced all the smaller ones?
Those questions, in effect, are among the topics of upcoming studies by CitiesStrong, a new nonprofit made up of at least a dozen current and former local officials in St. Louis County.
CitiesStrong has commissioned the Public Policy Research Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis to conduct the studies. The center's first report, on Indianapolis, is slated to be released next week.
CitiesStrong’s vice chairman, former Crestwood Mayor Jim Brasfield, says the group's aim is to more fully explore the assertions of pro-merger advocates — notably a rival group, Better Together — that fewer local governments could mean more efficient government that saves taxpayers some money.
“We think it’s a worthwhile enterprise to try to bring in analytics and bring stories and tales to the public domain about what local government has done and will be able to do in the future,” Brasfield said.
He said the new group is receiving seed money of $60,000 to $100,000 from the St. Louis County Municipal League to cover its initial costs for administration and the studies. Retired league executive director Tim Fischesser is working part time to help CitiesStrong get organized. It also has hired consultant Scott Charton to handle press coverage.
But Brasfield said there’s no plan to have a permanent staff or an office, adding that such costs aren’t necessary.
Challenging Better Together's results
The new group’s key objective, he said, is to focus on what area local governments do right.
“A group of us began to kind of get together and meet several months ago because we were concerned that local governments were kind of getting a bad rap, and there wasn’t enough appreciation for what local governments do and the value that citizens hold for local government.”
Brasfield said members of the new group include retirees like himself and former Greendale Mayor Monica Huddleston, and current officials such as Webster Groves Mayor Gerri Welch.
Brasfield, by the way, is familiar with earlier pro-merger efforts -- notably the 1980s' creation of a Board of Freeholders, which proposed various ways to reduce the number of county municipalities, at the behest of then-County Executive Gene McNary.
Among other things, CitiesStrong takes issue with a lot of Better Together's pro-merger findings, reflected in a series of reports issued over the past year or so.
Dave Leipholtz, Better Together's director of community-based studies, says he's disappointed — but not surprised — by the creation of CitiesStrong.
Leipholtz accused the new group of "essentially running a PR campaign'' to challenge irrefutable conclusions that too much government can be wasteful, and ineffective.
He cited similar conclusions by the Ferguson Commission and the federal Department of Justice.
"It's disheartening to see a group of leaders who could be at the forefront'' of change, choosing instead to fight it, Leipholtz said.
CitiesStrong has been organized as a 501C3 non-profit, Brasfield said, so it cannot get involved in political campaigns.
CitiesStrong also has no plans to get involved in two lawsuits that area communities have filed to challenge County Executive Steve Stenger’s efforts to impose uniform standards for local police departments, and the municipal court changes recently mandated by Missouri’s state government.
But Brasfield added that many of the group’s members sympathize with the local communities who filed the suits.