Is Smaller Better? Multitude Of Municipalities Plays Into City-County Merger Debate
Greendale is home to about 700 people in north St. Louis County. The primarily residential community features stately brick houses along seven, well-maintained streets. The town’s city hall consists of two rooms inside an office building. It contracts with nearby Normandy for police service. Its big-ticket expenditures include cleaning streets and trimming trees.
Charlie Giraud found a lot to like. He’s lived in bigger St. Louis County municipalities like Ballwin and University City. He appreciated Greendale’s friendly neighbors, racial diversity and close-knit community.
He also said it's easy to get to know his local government, including Greendale Mayor Monica Huddleston.
“From a size perspective, Greendale brings a real close-knit community aspect,” said Giraud, who works in outside sales. “We do know most all of our neighbors on the horseshoe that makes up Greendale St. But it’s nice to know that you see the mayor of Greendale walking down the street pretty regularly. She knows myself, she knows my wife, she knows my kids.”
Giraud resides in one of the tiny St. Louis County municipalities that have been subjects of conversation — and contention — regarding regional governance. With 90 municipalities, St. Louis County has the most incorporated cities, towns and villages in the state.
Some see this as a positive, giving residents more access and clout to change things in their communities. But others recommend consolidation, contending that the current state of affairs is inefficient and fragmented.
One group that often talks about the number of governments in the St. Louis region is Better Together, the organization studying the possibility of ending the “Great Divorce” between St. Louis County and St. Louis. It recently observed that some St. Louis County municipalities haven't issued bonds to undertake critical public works projects.
“Fragmentation really is a problem in terms of governance,” said Jim Buford, the former head of St. Louis’ Urban League and a board member of Better Together.
But proponents of consolidation have a tough task. Efforts to merge municipalities have failed dramatically in the past. And similar efforts are likely to run into opposition today — including from officials like Huddleston.
“Why should we change just because someone outside of here thinks that there are too many municipalities? What’s the benefit to the residents who live here? What’s the benefit to our quality of life to merge with some larger entity?” Huddleston said. “If somebody can show me some benefit to that for the residents who live here, who pay the taxes here, who elect the representation here, then maybe we can talk."
"But right now, I and my Board of Alderpersons are accountable to just under 700 residents,” she added.
Smaller is better?
In some ways, small towns are part-and-parcel of living in Missouri. For example, the largest municipality in rural Putnam County, Mo. — Unionville – has 1,865 people. St. Louis County has around 35 towns with fewer people than Unionville.
These towns are scatted around the county. They include wealthy villages like Huntleigh and middle-class bedroom communities such as Greendale. They also included financially strapped towns like Uplands Park.
North St. Louis County may have the largest collection of small municipalities, many of which started as white bedroom communities but eventually attracted middle- and working-class African Americans.
Alex Herman and his family have lived in Greendale for 19 years. He serves as one of the town's aldermen.
"One of the things I really like about the community is that it is so safe," Herman said. "You can even take a walk at midnight and not have fear of being attacked by anyone. It’s great place to raise a child as far as safety is concerned. The homes are all very well-maintained. It’s a pleasure to get home after a long day’s work."
Anthony Glover moved to Pasadena Hills 41 years ago. The north St. Louis native initially had no interest at living in St. Louis County.
“This is in the early years of housing integration,” said Glover, who works as a fitness instructor at the O’Fallon Park Rec Center. “And basically I’m tip-toeing across the line and dipping my toe into the water to see what it’s like — because the comfort levels were clearly living in the city and not living in St. Louis County.
“And as I adjusted to living here, I began to become a county resident and eventually looked at the city as foreign and different,” he added. “And then I realized at that point I had moved from one thing to another.”
For the most part, the elected leaders of these communities have other jobs. Pasadena Hills Mayor Geno Salvati is a computer programmer who moved to the north county community 11 years ago.
He decided to run for the $200-a-month mayorship after nobody else was planning to file. Salvati sees some key differences between governing a small city and a larger one.
“I previously lived in Clayton and St. Louis. In those cities, you’re not afforded a lot of opportunities to directly participate in local decision-making -- at least not as much as you are in my city,” Salvati said. “If a person in University City wants to have an impact on local government, the job’s a lot bigger.”
For his part, Glover doesn’t have a terribly magnanimous opinion of small municipalities.
He said that his house is fairly close to different fire protection districts, police departments and school districts. He finds the entire set-up confounding — and wasteful.
“Do I really need all of that within walking distance of my house?”
“I look at it and say ‘why don’t you consolidate all of this?’ If it were a business, you would consolidate it,” Glover said.
“And the area that is generally referred to as the ‘Normandy area,’ which basically encompasses the school district and the major fire district, has some 40,000 to 50,000 people in it. But it has all the parts of three school districts, all the parts of three fire districts.”
“I look at that and say, ‘here’s part of your confusion right here,” he added. “Nobody has to cooperate with anybody else.”
Taking care of business
During a St. Louis University symposium on the city-county merger, Buford detailed a Better Together report showing that 49 cities in St. Louis County had no debt. While he says that might seem like a good thing, Buford says smaller cities aren't issuing bonds to provide critical public services like police protection or street repair.
The 49 municipalities that Buford highlighted included relatively well-off ones, such as Ballwin, Town and Country, Westwood and Huntleigh. But Buford said most of the cities mentioned had sizable African-American populations and “poverty levels 5 percent up to 35 percent higher than the average poverty level.”
Some of the towns included in the report have had high-profile problems with funding municipal services. Wellston had to release its prisoners after the town couldn't find the money to feed them. Uplands Park has had major difficulties in paying for police service.
“These communities did not have the wherewithal to create the debt,” Buford said. “So therefore, these communities are not structurally sound or in good shape. And of course, when there is no public investment in a municipality, it’s very unlikely there’s going to be any private investment.”
Several years ago, residents of St. George in south St. Louis County voted to dissolve and become part of unincorporated St. Louis County. One of the leaders behind that effort — state Rep. Bob Burns, D-St. Louis County— said last year that municipalities can "turn neighbor against neighbor."
While emphasizing that that people within the towns and cities would make the decision themselves, Buford said, “If these municipalities were to come together, they could create the size, the ability to create the debt, the ability to service their people better, better governance, better security, the whole bit.”
University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor Terry Jones said the idea of reducing the number of municipal governments is not new. Past St. Louis County executives have proposed “minimum standards” for municipalities — or kicked around the idea of shrinking the number of cities and towns.
It's also been done in other cities. When he was mayor of Indianapolis, Richard Lugar was instrumental in merging the city and county into “UniGov.”
“Indianapolis went through the UniGov experiment because we really did have a desire for greatness for a city,” said Lugar earlier this year in St. Louis. “Some people were completely satisfied with life as it was. But ultimately a majority of people were very excited about being the best or vying to be the best.”
But Jones said efforts to consolidate haven't been successful in St. Louis. He said former St. Louis County Executive Gene McNary’s bid to consolidate municipalities got bogged down on several fronts.
“You get into all sorts of issues large and small,” Jones said. “Large is how many should it be and should it be 40 or 20 or 30? And the other is how do you combine them? And then a small issue: If you combine Ladue and Clayton, what do you call it? Ladue-Clayton or ClayLadue?”
“In one sense, it’s silly. But people do get attached to names,” he added.
Some of the smaller cities, he says, are able to do relatively well under the county's sales tax distribution system. That — along with the collection of other taxes and fees — allows these communities to shop around for critical services, such a police protection.
Greendale, for instance, estimated about $315,000 in revenues and about $313,000 in expenses for the 2013-2014 budgetary year. Some of its projected revenues include $85,000 from the county sales tax, $26,600 from real estate taxes, and $62,600 in utilties taxes.
There’s also political opposition. Salvati said Pasadena Hills residents "are pretty happy with a more local and close government — a government that’s a little less separated from the individuals that it serve."
Huddleston in particular took issue with Buford’s conclusion that the "fractionalization" of cities in the county was why smaller municipalities had not issued debt.
Huddleston said that Greendale hadn’t issued any bonds until after she became mayor in 2003. The city eventually passed a capital improvement tax to pay off the debt, but she emphasized that bonding is “not a concept that is comfortable with everyone or well-known enough by some of the smaller municipalities.”
“It really has nothing to do with the fact that we have many municipalities. That’s the beauty of the St. Louis County area — to have the individuality of all these municipalities,” Huddleston said. “So that was my issue. The study didn’t give him that information. He drew that conclusion from the financial data that he saw, which, in my view, was an erroneous conclusion.”
Bel-Ridge Mayor Patricia Snider shares Huddleston’s sentiments. Her town was one of the 49 municipalities without debt, which she attributed in part to her town being “pretty self-sufficient.”
She bristled at the idea that north St. Louis County municipalities should merge into bigger ones.
“We’re doing just fine. Everybody seems to making their own way,” Snider said. “We can take care of our people because we live there. We don’t live in Clayton. We don’t live in Ladue. We don’t live in Wildwood or West County. We live in Bel-Ridge. We know what those problems are because we live it day-to-day.”
Buford and other Better Together officials say they were a bit taken aback by the response to the study. He said, “People seemed to be very threatened that if they bought this data, these results would be that would be the end of the road or something.”
As for Huddleston's concerns, Buford said: "I didn’t want to get in a point-counterpoint, but it’s such a small community." He also said, among other thing, the city's location next to the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Glen Echo Country Club also helps its cause.
Both Buford said that Better Together doesn’t have “power” or the “desire” to engage in wholesale municipal consolidation. And Better Together executive director Nancy Rice emphasized that if any consolidation proposal goes forward, it will not come from her group.
“I have been disappointed at the anger that some mayors have shown,” Rice said. “But then I remind myself ‘this is not good news.’ What we’re telling you here is not good news. People don’t always respond always to bad news the way you would have it. They respond in every different fashion and anger is one of them.”
But Huddleston said, “You can only name maybe less than five that are having any difficulties at all,” adding “those are not difficulties that are insurmountable.” She also said small, north St. Louis County municipalities are being held to double standard.
“Unfortunately in the St. Louis area, with our history here, it is racial to a great extent and it is class to a certain extent,” Huddleston said. “We have that problem pretty bad in the St. Louis area. Black, white thing. North, south thing. There’s always been this battle of perceptions with regard to ‘if it’s black and if it’s north, it’s got to be worse.’ And it’s just not true.”
“You can drive around any of our municipalities. You can hang out in any of our municipalities and see that it’s not true,” she added. “The problems are just not magnified like that. They’re magnified in the eyes of those who have preconceived notions with regard to race and with regard to class in a lot of cases.”
In recent years, Snider said that some of the county’s smaller municipalities have made a concerted effort to work together.
That wasn’t always the case. Snider said small municipalities in the past “didn’t share very much, because everybody was afraid that if you got too friendly with this community that they’re going to try and take you over.”
But that was before 24:1, a group that Beyond Housing formed to tackle problems within the Normandy School District.
Through that group, Huddleston said the leaders of the 24 municipalities that make up that school district work more cohesively.
“We support each other. We share services. We contract with each other for services. We bid on contracts together so we can save money for our taxpayers,” said Huddleston. "We’re not merging. But we’re doing wonderful things together.”
Snider said that the municipalities' police chiefs meet on a regular basis. The city's leaders have also worked together to bring more business development to Natural Bridge Road.
“At this time, it’s been very cohesive,” said Normandy Mayor Patrick Green. “We’ve worked out a lot of those bumps. And that’s relationships. Getting to know your partner, understanding that they have the same goals that you do and that there’s a better approach to reaching those goals.”
For Giraud, the Greendale resident, the debate over the number of municipalities may be somewhat academic. He lived in Indianapolis for a time; neighborhoods there “still had a great sense of community,” he said.
Before moving to Greendale, Giraud lived in St. Louis and other municipalities in St. Louis County.
“It is funny that when you come back to St. Louis, everyone refers to where they live by their little municipality,” Giraud said. “Yet, when I travel or when I talk to people, I don’t ever refer to ‘oh I live in Greendale.’ You know, I’m not from Greendale, Missouri. I always say ‘I’m from St. Louis, Missouri.’”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.
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