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Government, Politics & Issues

To be or not to be: St. George voters decide on dissolution Tuesday

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 4, 2011 - As the St. Louis County village of St. George continues its debate over whether to vote next Tuesday to dissolve, an added element has been tossed in the fray -- courtesy of County Executive Charlie Dooley's proposed cuts in county services.

Former St. George Mayor Mary Jo Fitzpatrick, who opposes the disincorporation, hopes that the publicity over the county's budget problems might give some proponents second thoughts.

County officials have been providing assurances to St. George residents that -- if their community is dissolved -- the county will provide the needed police protection and street repairs.

Former St. George Alderman Bob Burns, one of the leaders of the pro-dissolution drive, says he personally has gotten assurances from Dooley and county chief operating officer Garry Earls that the first wave of street improvements will get underway in the 2013 budget.

Fitzpatrick contends that residents should be wary of such promises, in the wake of the county's money problems. She notes that Dooley's budget proposal would curb snow removal in unincorporated areas, such as a dissolved St. George.

But Burns isn't worried about any mass changes of heart. His chief concern is that people might forget to show up at the polls and vote.

Mayor Carmen Wilkerson -- who won her post last spring on her promise to dissolve the town -- apparently shares that sentiment. Her most recent city mailing, which arrived Wednesday in many St. George homes, features an envelope emblazoned in red with the words "Nag, Nag, Nag."

Inside the envelope is a letter exhorting the reader to vote, accompanied by charts and information about the city's finances. In the letter, Wilkerson avoids stating her opinion on dissolution, which would violate state campaign laws that bar public officials from using public money to lobby for or against a candidate or issue. As long as such communications are "informational,'' they are perfectly legal, said Julie Allen, executive director of the Missouri Ethics Commission.

In that vein, Wilkerson wrote that the city's finances -- which now cost each village homeowner about $30 a year -- would be enough for minimal services, including paying for contracted county police patrols. But she warns that the city would need to raise collections to about $300 a household to pay for needed street repairs or any other big-ticket items.

Left unsaid were the scandals and controversies in recent years that led to the call for dissolution. St. George did away with its own police force in 2009 after a series of controversies, including an alleged sex scandal involving St. George's last police chief and a minor. Each side accuses rival current and former officials of, at minimum, failing to properly monitor what went on.

Last summer, Wilkerson and a majority of the aldermen collected signatures from more than 500 St. George residents -- about two-thirds of the registered voters -- to ask the county to hold Tuesday's election on dissolution.

What About The Park?

St. George has held a series of public meetings -- the last on Oct. 15 -- to lay out the basics of what would happen if the village is dissolved. County officials have led many of the discussions.

If dissolution is approved, the county will select a trustee to oversee the disposition of St. George's assets, which include about $300,000 in the bank, the small building that serves as the City Hall and the small park behind it.

At the last meeting, Wilkerson told the small crowd that City Hall -- which has no kitchen and only a half-bath -- would need substantial renovations to meet the fire code.

But the biggest concern among several in the audience was the disposition of the small park behind City Hall. Wilkerson explained, "Our little park does not qualify to be maintained by the county."

Burns says that, since then, Earls has indicated the county may have had a change of heart. In any case, Wilkerson has told residents that, if dissolution is approved on Tuesday, they could then form a neighborhood association to oversee the park. Some have even suggested turning the City Hall into a community center.

St. George was incorporated in 1948 and has a voting population of roughly 800 people. Most of its homes are modest, post-World War II one-story ranches. Once a magnet for retirees in the 1980s and '90s, the village has seen an influx of younger residents during the past decade. Now, only about 20 percent of its residents are age 60 or above, Wilkerson and county officials say.

Fitzpatrick contends that St. George still deserves to survive. She asserts that the village can still afford basic services and believes that dissolution will end up being more expensive for the residents. But the biggest loss will be the sense of community, she said.

Why form a neighborhood association to oversee the park, when keeping things as they are would be cheaper, Fitzpatrick said.

Wilkerson said at that last public meeting that she shared the mixed emotions about the vote. "If we could go back to the '60s and '70s, we would,'' she said, referring to St. George's heyday. "But we can't."

Campaign yard signs have begun to spring up over the past few week or so. Of the few lawns sporting them, virtually all as of Wednesday were in favor of dissolving the village. The city plans at least one more mailing reminding residents of the election and encouraging them to turn out.

Fitzpatrick, whose yard now sports one of the rare "No" signs, has a pile in her living room that she plans to distribute over the weekend -- along with a hand-delivered flier.

The critics' flier, however, was printed up before Dooley's proposed budget cuts were announced -- so that pitch isn't mentioned.

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