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After decades of contemplation and debate, a group known as Better Together is recommending an end to the “Great Divorce” between St. Louis and St. Louis County.Better Together is proposing an ambitious plan to create a unified metro government and police department and limit municipalities' ability to levy sales taxes. The plan would be decided through a statewide vote.Proponents contend it will scrape away layers of local government that has been holding the St. Louis region back. Opponents believe the plan will create an unwieldy and large centralized government that could be implemented against the will of city and county residents.

City-county reunification talk could complicate county executive race

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: For the umpteenth time over the last half century, some civic activists are  floating the idea of official reconnection between St. Louis and St. Louis County. But this time, lots of politics are mixed in with the policy issues.

Talk of city/county reunification appears to be increasingly intertwined with the 2014 contest for St. Louis County executive.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay is co-hosting two major fundraising events later this month for County Executive Charlie Dooley. Their common support for closer city/county cooperation is among the reasons the mayor has come out early and forcefully for Dooley, Slay's campaign consultant says.

The mayor supports Dooley despite various controversies that have embroiled the county executive recently.

Slay and Dooley also share another distinction. Both Democrats have benefited from campaign donations by wealthy financier Rex Sinquefield, the state's biggest political contributor. He generally gives to Republicans.

Sinquefield gave $100,000 to Dooley in late June.

Sinquefield, who has a home in St. Louis, advocates governmental efficiency and lower taxes. He was a key financial backer of last year’s successful statewide ballot initiative for local control of St. Louis’ police department. The statewide measure pulled off an end-run around longstanding opponents of local control.

A spokeswoman for Sinquefield confirmed that he has been generous to Slay and Dooley in part because of their support for closer city-county ties.

"Sinquefield is a supporter of people who are supporters of regionalism,’’ said spokeswoman Nancy Rice. In the case of Slay and Dooley, “it’s because of their support of regional solutions to problems.”

But Rice emphasized that Sinquefield was promoting the general idea of regionalism, not embracing any "explicit plan” for a city/county merger. That distinction is important because two major reunification proposals are currently circulating.

One would allow St. Louis to re-enter St. Louis County. The second, far more dramatic option, would result in a single city/county entity patterned after the 1970s merger of Indianapolis with surrounding Marion County, an act dubbed Unigov.

County Municipal League studying reunification

The St. Louis County Municipal League has formed a committee to study the most talked-about option, which would allow the city to re-enter the county as its 91st municipality.

This city re-entry committee is expected to report this fall to the league’s membership. League assistant director Stephen Ables said the league has yet to take a stand on any reunification proposal.

They would undo the city/county split of 1876, often dubbed the Great Divorce. Referring to the current discussions, Ables quipped, "Some are describing it as ‘dating.' "

The STL World Class City group has been advancing merger proposals for several years. The group's chief pitch is that reunification would help the region get more national respect. 

The group's first goal is for the city to reenter the county by 2014. That year is the city’s 250th anniversary.

Ultimately, STL World Class City wants something like Unigov. But that would require changes in the state constitution and support from dozens of county municipalities that would be asked to dissolve.

Charles Schmitz, dean emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is spokesman for the STL World Class City. He said that Unigov could save the region $200 million a year in tax dollars.  The more limited option of city re-entry into the county would save $20 million a year, he said, primarily by eliminating the city's seven "county'' offices.

So far, business and political leaders have yet to jump on the Unigov bandwagon. But some political consultants privately say that the talk about the more ambitious and controversial idea could actually boost the chances of the city reentering the county. The more extreme proposal would make reentry look more moderate and mainstream, they point out.

Supporters of closer governmental ties between the city and county have been promoting the idea for at least decade. U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, wrote an op-ed praising the idea more than two years ago.

State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, sponsored a proposed resolution in 2011 to allow a statewide vote.

The reunification talk has gained attention lately because of the recent merger of the city and county economic development agencies. That move generated some controversy, but it has been accomplished with few apparent problems.

The St. Louis Regional Chamber supports the merger of the development agencies, a spokesman said, but he emphasized that it has taken no official stand on reunification of the city and county.

2012 poll may aid latest effort

A year ago, a private company with ties to Sinquefield hired a polling firm to measure regional and statewide attitudes on city/county reunification. A majority of those polled in St. Louis supported either concept — city re-entry into the county or Unigov.

In the county, views were split. Neither plan got majority support. County voters were evenly split on the idea of the city reentering the county. Unigov was much less popular.

A key overall finding in the poll: Young people offered the strongest support for any form of reunification. That fact is cited repeatedly by supporters.

Sinquefield’s longstanding contributions to Dooley and Slay have gotten renewed attention because of the trio’s common interest in reunification. That fact could have implications for Dooley’s 2014 race.

Slay has made no secret that, at minimum, he’d like the city to re-enter the county. Dooley has said that he’s not opposed to the idea but has emphasized that city and county residents should vote on that plan or any other merger proposal.

Their general agreement on the matter is among the reasons Slay is helping raise money for Dooley. Dooley is considered by some to be a stronger booster for regionalism than some of his potential Democratic or Republican rivals.

Slay's campaign consultant Richard Callow emphasized that the mayor also was backing Dooley early because the two are friends and because Dooley provided key support during Slay’s combative reelection bid last winter. Dooley even appeared in a TV ad.

Merger talk got little play during Slay’s contest with city Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed. But that may not be the case for Dooley next year.

GOP sought to use merger as 'wedge issue' in 2010

During his 2010 re-election bid, Dooley was hammered over the merger issue by his GOP opponent, lawyer Bill Corrigan. One of Corrigan's TV ads contended that closer governmental ties between the city and county could put county finances at risk. Dooley, joined by Slay, vigorously pushed back.

Political analysts say that the ad and the merger topic became a "wedge issue’’ for Corrigan and helped him come close to knocking off Dooley — even though the county is increasingly Democratic.

This time, the St. Louis County Republican Central Committee has launched a pre-emptive strike. In June, the county GOP approved a resolution opposing the merger of the economic development agencies, saying such a move could be the first step in the march to city/county reunification.

County GOP chairman Bruce Buwalda said local party leaders continue to believe that reunification in any form would be costly for county residents. As an example, Buwalda cited the condition of St. Louis streets. He said they were generally in poorer shape than county streets.

Others have said that county Republicans oppose reunification because the influx of so many city Democrats would likely doom GOP chances of winning county offices.

Buwalda acknowledged that reunification could play a role in the county executive race next year. But Buwalda said that as far as he was concerned,   views on city-county reunification "will not be a litmus test for candidacy” for county executive.

That means the GOP nominee might side with Sinquefield and the STL World Class City group in favor of city/county reunification, even though that would be out of step with the official stance of the St. Louis County Republican Party.

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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