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The more, the better: Municipal League says county's many cities are its strength

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 10, 2011 - Mayors of some of St. Louis County's 91 municipalities say they're tired of being portrayed as one of the county's biggest problems -- and they hope to spend 2011 setting the record straight.

"There's a wrong perception that the number of munipalities makes (St. Louis County) less competitive,'' said Glendale Mayor Rich Magee, president of the St. Louis County Municipal League. "We're the solution, not the problem."

Magee and several dozen county mayors announced at a news conference Thursday in Richmond Heights that the Municipal League is declaring 2011 as "The Year of the Cities" to highlight what the municipalities do and provide.

According to the league, the aim is "to insure cities have a greater voice in regional and statewide affairs'' and to promote cooperation.

For decades, some critics have contended that the county's huge cadre of municipalities has been its weakness, by jockeying among each other to obtain businesses and residents. The quest for development -- especially for sales tax generating shopping centers -- often has seen local communities vie over who can offer the best incentives.

In the 1980s, then-County Executive Gene McNary sought -- and failed -- to lead an effort to merge many of the smaller communities, saying such mergers could provide more efficiencies at less cost and reduce duplication of services.

To hear many of the mayors talk, they have forged some cooperative deals on their own -- while keeping their communities independent and intact.

"Local government is important and local government does make a difference,'' said Clayton Mayor Linda Goldstein. "Yet when you reach the breakdown of your property tax bills, cities only get a very small part of the total tax package, and local tax rates are lower than most areas of the country."

Brentwood Mayor Pat Kelly said that local residents often call their City Hall when they have concerns or questions about government actions on any level. "We are the first ones to know when a new business opens, when a storefront becomes vacant or when a group of residents loses their jobs."

Besides creating camaraderie, community cooperation also can save cash, several mayors said. Ferguson Mayor Brian Fletcher recounted how his city purchases gasoline in bulk, at 40-50 cents a gallon less than the charge at a typical gasoline station. His city also plows streets and handles police dispatching services for several neighboring municipalities.

Fletcher said the message was how local governments can be "smarter and more efficient in these lean economic times."

Normandy Mayor Patrick Green said that his city is among several buying road salt in bulk and then selling some of it to nearby communities. As a result, the cooperative is purchasing salt for $54 a ton, while others buying it on their own are paying $175 a ton, he said.

Webster Groves Mayor Gerry Welch also sought to discredit a study, circulated by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, that she said wrongly portrayed some area communities -- including hers -- as financially troubled or in decline. Welch said the survey involved only 48 communities in eight counties, and that it misinterpreted some of the local statistics or financial figures.

The overarching theme, said league president Magee, is that 2011 will see the league and its members flex their political muscles. "Our diversity is our asset, and our connection to residents and businesses is the bedrock of sound policymaking," he said.

Having 91 municipal voices, he added, should give area local governments even more clout -- not less. And perhaps they can quell the decades-old complaint that 91 is a crowd.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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