As City-County Merger Study Unfolds, Some Municipal Leaders Are Speaking Out
Ellisville Mayor Adam Paul is no stranger to fighting city hall.
At this point last year, Paul was clawing his way back into office after a high-profile – and at-times bizarre – impeachment saga. Despite an intense and expensive effort from his political adversaries to remove him, Paul eventually kept his job as mayor. His town has generally been out of the headlines ever since.
Now, Paul is at the center of another highly-charged debate. He helped Ellisville pass a resolution opposing a merger between the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County. Ballwin, Valley Park Green Park have passed similar measures, putting the towns on record against an idea that’s been floating around for decades.
Paul acknowledges that the resolution is symbolic. But it showcases the angst some municipal leaders have over the increasing talk to end the so-called “Great Divorce” between the county and city.
Municipal officials fear the end result of such discussions could be a plan that weakens – or downright eliminates – St. Louis County's municipalities.
“The resolution that Ellisville has passed was nothing more than a resolution saying that our services and the level of services we provide to our residents are second to none, and that we’re going to oppose anything that is a detriment or has a negative effect to the services that we currently provide,” Paul said.
Talks of a city-county reunion gained steam after the formation of Better Together in November, a group studying the two jurisdictions' finances, governmental administrations and economic development functions with an eye to weighing the viability of a merger.
Officials connected to the group don’t understand the backlash, especially since a specific proposal is potentially years away from consideration. They say the study could provide residents with enough data to choose their own destinies.
“We embrace the Jeffersonian principle: If you give people enough information, they’ll do the right thing,” said Better Together executive director Nancy Rice. “Up to now, what we found when people were talking about the city re-entering the county, we found all these emotional arguments about it. But we found that nobody had any facts.”
“We determined that let’s just get a lot of data together and have a community conversation,” she added.
Sound the alarm
St. Louis is one of the few cities in the nation responsible for county functions, an arrangement that’s prompted decades of debate.
Proponents of a city-county merger have argued that keeping the two jurisdictions separate is inefficient, and that ending the divide could lead to streamlined government, cost savings and a more enticing business climate.
Those are the questions that Better Together's studies hope to resolve. The findings could eventually be used to formulate some sort of a reunification plan, although the group’s leaders have emphasized that they have no preconceived proposal.
Since the group formed, some municipal leaders have been increasingly vocal about their wariness toward a merger.
One of the biggest concerns they express involves whether the city would funnel off county resources – especially if the county takes over maintaining St. Louis’ roads or managing parks.
“We take care of our own streets. We plow our own streets. We maintain our own streets,” said Green Park Alderman Tony Pousosa. “And I think if we have a reduction in revenue because money’s being siphoned to take care of anterior roads in the city, then that’s a problem.”
Several municipal officials interviewed by St. Louis Public Radio also said they worry the end result of the Better Together study will be a proposal resembling Indianapolis’ “UniGov.” That involved blending the city of Indianapolis and a number of surrounding municipalities into one consolidated government.
Mayor Adam Paul said the residents of Ellisville don’t want “a socialism-type government on the local government, that being a mega-merger or a UniGov.”
“I think people are proud of where they’re from,” Paul said. “And the resources that they’re given are based on the taxes that they pay, whether it be street cleaning, snow removal, sidewalk repair, parks – things of that matter. Those are the things that they take in consideration. When they hear that they’re losing that to a larger form of government or a UniGov, that’s going to spark fear in people’s minds one way or another.”
Then there are the political considerations: Any sort of merger proposal would almost certainly doom Republican efforts to win the county executive’s office or take over the St. Louis County Council because the city of St. Louis is heavily Democratic.
Ballwin Alderman Shamed Dogan said that result could make it easier to pass tax increases. He also said it could lead to other unintended consequences.
“You’d have essentially a one-party government. And one-party government usually leads to more corruption. It leads to arrogance on behalf of that party, especially when it comes to talking about minority voters,” said Dogan, who is African-American. “It’s easy to take the concerns of their African-American constituents for granted and run those cities in to the ground. And it’s like, ‘what are you going to do – elect a Republican?’”
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles – who has worked for Republican candidates over the years – said the political impact of a merger is a source of consternation. He said it’s not just limited to Republicans who may lose political power.
“There are a lot of independent people and a lot of Democrats who are scared of the issue because of the perception that the brand of politics that goes on in the city will somehow then prevail in the county,” said Knowles, who was elected to the non-partisan office of mayor a few years ago. “There are a lot of people who are critical of ward politics and some of the things that still exist in the city of St. Louis. That's the kind of one-party government which a lot of independent people are not necessarily happy to see.”
For his part, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay isn’t terribly surprised that talk of a city-county merger sparked a backlash from municipal officials.
“We knew from the beginning that our biggest opposition was going to be politicians and elected officials,” Slay said. “And that's kind of what’s happening here. But what I’m asking them, and what I’m asking everybody else, is to keep an open mind. Get the real facts and let’s engage in honest, straight-forward discussion about what we’re talking about.”
Both Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley contend critics are jumping the gun by officially opposing a merger. Dooley said it’s “very difficult” for a city council “to vote for something for or against when you don’t know what it is you’re voting for or against.”
Dooley also dismissed the idea that if the city became a municipality within the county, it would necessarily siphon resources or cause other unintended consequences. “If the city re-entered the county, instead of 90 municipalities there would be 91 municipalities,” he said. “What’s the difference?”
The opposition of municipal officials also doesn’t shock Jim Buford – a Better Together board member and the former head of St. Louis’ Urban League.
He said that the St. Louis region has a history of being “very parochial.” He also said that some municipal leaders think “if the city is coming into the county, there’s some undisclosed trickery or undisclosed dynamic that we don’t know about it and it’s going to impact us.”
“Why do we have these 92, 91 or 90 municipalities in the first place? What would motivate people to do it?” Buford said. “Because as they moved out further, they created their own little areas which they felt were secure. And they've become very comfortable with this structure. And anybody that proposes anything different than what they have, they’re going to challenge it.”
It should be noted that some of the municipal officials speaking out against the city-county merger are running for higher offices. Ballwin Alderman Dogan is running as a Republican for a state representative seat. Ellisville's Mayor Paul and Ballwin Alderman Mark Harder are vying for a St. Louis Council Council position. Green Park Alderman Pousosa is running for county executive.
But Paul says his opposition doesn’t have anything to do with his county council run.He said he started questioning the merger before he even knew the seat he is running for was up for grabs. He did, however, concede that the city-county merger is a “hot-button” issue among Republican voters.
“At the end of the day, let me tell you this,” Paul said. “I’d be lying to you if I told you as a candidate that if I were to be elected, that I could just turn this around. You can’t. All you can do is essentially do a political grandstand and get your voice out. Because at the end of the day, this is going to the vote of the people. Which it should.”
Watching and waiting
Not every municipality is following the lead of Ellisville, Ballwin, Valley Park or Green Park.
Ferguson recently passed a resolution supportive of Better Together’s study. While Ferguson Mayor Knowles said he doesn’t necessarily “favor allowing the city of Ferguson to go away and become part of a massive, million-citizen bureaucracy,” he’s willing to give the group a chance.
“A few cities have taken the stance of ‘let’s just close the door on any discussion on the topic or on the subject.’,” Knowles said. “And so I felt that it was important that we remain open-minded, that we continue to talk, that we continue to examine the issue and study it and see where the issue leads us.”
“There are things that we could do better in this region and in St. Louis County,” he added. “But I think we need to let the facts leads us to a decision, not make a decision first.”
Knowles also said Republicans who are reflexively opposing the merger are missing an opportunity. The merger debate, he said, could be a chance to make city or county elected positions nonpartisan. That would give Republicans living in heavily Democratic areas a better chance of getting elected.
“Why do we have political parties for that? I mean, it’s absurd,” Knowles said. “If somebody were to look at me and say ‘I want to meet James Knowles. Wait, he’s a Republican. And then instead of meeting James Knowles, we spend the entire time debating the ACA or Mitch McConnell or some other ridiculous national Republican thing. If we’re talking about streets or safety and municipal issues, then let’s talk about that.”
Other leaders of large municipalities indicated that they would likely hold off for now on passing resolutions either for or against a merger. For instance, Clayton City Manager Craig Owens stated flatly that “there is no conversation going on about it. There is nothing on the agenda.”
Creve Coeur Coeur Mayor Barry Glantz said the city council hasn’t “taken a position, because I don’t know there’s a position to be taken.”
“I think it’s critically important that we watch what various groups are doing and that we do all the necessary due-diligence as all the different proposals gain moment, take shape or get modified,” Glantz said. “So we’re actively watching as things evolve. But personally, I think it’s premature to take a position on anything.”
Kirkwood Mayor Art McDonnell said the city-county merger is a “big topic, and it won’t get solved by a resolution.” But, like Glantz, he said cities need to pay attention.
“As much as cities like to think that ‘I’m doing okay where I am; I don’t need to consider this merger,’ they still need to be aware, and think about it and get involved in how to get the region get better,” McDonnell said.
Webster Groves Mayor Gerry Welch also said her city's council isn't likely to sound off on the city-county merger. She said "it is hard to take a position if you don't know anything about arrangements."
But Welch isn't completely happy with how the discussion has gone. She doesn't like how some merger proponents have raised the specter of UniGov, adding that "we ought to be building on what we have and not modeling on something else." She also said the county's municipalities should have a more direct voice in Better Together's studies.
"We represent the majority of people at the grassroots level in St. Louis County," Welch said. "But we're not at any table. When you don't get people at the table, then you don't get their cooperation. What you get is their suspicion."
But Rice said her group has reached out to and met with “countless municipal officials” and “absorbed their comments and guidance into our process.” That includes meeting with the St. Louis County Municipal League and specifically inviting municipal officials to participate in the group’s process.
“The reality is that several mayors, city clerks and aldermen are participating with Better Together,” said Rice in an e-mail. “Other mayors and officials have participated in one-on-one conversations and interviews as part of individual studies. The bottom line is that participation by municipal officials is welcome and helpful.”
“Fall in line”
In some ways, the opinion of municipal mayors and council members doesn't matter that much. As of right now, any merger proposal would have to be approved by city and county voters before going into effect.
But one practical aspect of Ellisville and Ballwin’s resolutions is to send a specific message: If there’s going to be a proposal, it has to take municipal concerns into consideration.
“No municipality should be opposed to sitting at the table and gathering and identifying facts from a truly data-driven study,” Paul said. “And I think it would be reckless for an elected official to come out and oppose something that is not essentially a proposal yet. Essentially we are opposing or at least trying to get Better Together to fall in line.”
Dogan says that means two specific things: The first is taking any proposal similar to Indianapolis’ UniGov off the table. The other is not have the proposal go to a statewide vote.
As of now, the Missouri Constitution stipulates that a merger would have to receive approval only from city and county voters. But there's a general consensus that it may be easier to pass a proposal statewide, which Dogan said would be "horribly misguided and incur a huge backlash."
“Right not they’re saying they’re keeping an open mind and we don’t know what we’re going to conclude," he added. “Take that as you will, but I’d like for them to at least rule out some of the options.”
Both Slay and Dooley have emphasized that they would want only city and county voters to approve any merger proposal. When asked if the “UniGov” option should be taken off the table, Dooley said “if they don’t do enough to satisfy what people need, then [people] won’t vote for it.”
“But whatever is proposed, the people in St. Louis County will have an opportunity to vote on it,” Dooley said. “And that’s the most important thing. If it’s something you don’t like if it’s proposed, you can vote against it. And it has to pass in each jurisdiction separately.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads about Missouri politics.