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Government, Politics & Issues
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.

Mayoral candidates share views on bringing St. Louis, the county together

St. Charles County executive Steve Ehlmann, Mayor Francis Slay, and St. Clair County executive Mark Kern (right) at the State of the Region breakfast on January 12, 2017
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
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St. Charles County executive Steve Ehlmann, Mayor Francis Slay, and St. Clair County executive Mark Kern (right) at the State of the Region breakfast earlier this year.

In what turned out to be his final inauguration speech in 2013, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay described St. Louis County as a place that “we confidently expect to re-enter in this decade.”

The Democrat might have been a bit overconfident, as it’s 2017 and there’s still strong opposition to the idea of a merger throughout St. Louis County. No one really knows what an actual merger would look like, either: Would St. Louis become a county municipality? Or would St. Louis and St. Louis County coalesce into one big city like Indianapolis did in the 1970s?

Still, the lack of headway hasn’t kept the topic from being a prime talking point in the St. Louis mayoral race. Proponents of a merger believe that combining jurisdictions creates some cost savings — and makes it easier to bring in big-ticket development projects.

Related: Read and listen to all of our 2017 St. Louis election coverage

The seven Democratic candidates vying to succeed Slay range from being enthusiastic about a merger to downright opposed. Some want key details to be worked out before putting a definitive proposal to city and county voters.

But most of the candidates are in favor of regional cooperation – including combining governmental services.

Here is a sampling of what the Democrats, one of whom will emerge from the March 7 primary, said about the issue during their appearances on the Politically Speaking podcast:

Alderman Lyda Krewson

Lyda Krewson in a February 2017 file photo.
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Alderman Lyda Krewson

The 28th Ward alderman strongly backs the idea of a city-county merger. The current way the St. Louis region delivers governmental services is inefficient, which she says leads her to be in favor of “some sort of reunification.”

“Back in 1876, we got divorced, the city and the county,” Krewson said. “It’s time we got remarried. But we’ve got to get the pre-nup worked out.”

Krewson added she wants to forge closer ties with St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, who has diverged with Slay on some key issues, including whether to raise the minimum wage on a local level.

“I’m not wedded to one solution over another,” she said. “But I really do think that when you think about... a region, we would do better if we were together.”

Alderman Antonio French

Alderman Antonio French, January 2017
Credit David Kovaluk I St. Louis Public Radio
Alderman Antonio French

French isn’t in favor of any sort of union until the county consolidates some of its municipalities. That could be a long and slow process, especially since the more affluent ones have shown no interest in disbanding.

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“I have not seen the proposal yet where the city and the county would merge that would actually prove the quality of life for city residents,” French said.

The 21st Ward alderman is opposed to any city-county merger proposal going to the statewide ballot.

“No one should get around the people that are most affected by the decision and having the decision made by outstate Missouri,” he said.
 
Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed

Lewis Reed January 2017
Credit Carolina Hidalgo I St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed

Regional policymakers should focus on combining governmental services before any kind of bid to merge, Reed said.

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“What we can begin to do today is enter into cooperative agreements on all those major line items and departments so we can derive the benefits of a city-county merger today,” he said.

Reed added it would take a huge amount of political capital to get St. Louis County voters to embrace a merger.

“The hold up for city-county merger for the people who live in the county is when they look at our data and our statistics and say ‘we don’t want to take on another municipality,’” he said.

St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones

Tishaura Jones 2017
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo I St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones

Jones said city policymakers must focus on solving their own problems before deciding whether a merger is worthwhile.

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“We need to get our house in order in terms of crime and unemployment and a whole host of things before we open our doors and let someone in,” Jones said.

Additionally, Jones wants county municipalities to merge with one another, suggesting that policymakers should look to other places around the country — such as Indianapolis or Louisville, Kentucky — that have successfully pursued city-county mergers.

“We have to look at other metro areas that have already been through this … to see what were some of arguments, the arguments against?” she said. “And what were some of the compromises made to make sure everyone was whole?”
 
St. Louis School Board member Bill Haas

Bill Haas, January 2017
Credit David Kovaluk I St. Louis Public Radio
Bill Haas

Advocates for a city-county merger have been “terrible at articulating what that means exactly,” Haas said.

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“It would be nice to do it for statistical purposes, that should be doable,” Haas said. “Because then we’ll be 40th on peoples’ list on crime and stuff instead of fifth. So you need to do it for statistical purposes.”

Haas went on to say that county Republicans “would not be inclined to vote for something that would dilute their representation.” He added that one of the cities where he used to live, Cleveland, was part of a county.

“If we get our education in order, which is how you get your crime in order, we [can] make this the city that other places in America look at to say ‘that’s how you do it in urban America,’” Haas said.

Former Alderman Jimmie Matthews

Jimmie Matthews, January 2017
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo I St. Louis Public Radio
Jimmie Matthews

Matthews said a city-county merger is “politically not feasible.”

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“If you come to marriage with St. Louis County, the Republicans have their power base there,” Matthews said. “You will be diluted. You will lose your political stronghold.”

Most city-county merger opponents make the opposite argument — because St. Louis is heavily Democratic, a merger would make it impossible for Republicans to win countywide offices.

In any case, Matthews’ feelings on a merger are simple: "No. N-O."

 
Alderman Jeffrey Boyd

Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, January 2017
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Alderman Jeffrey Boyd

The 22nd Ward alderman said that the city and county should showcase that they can work together on smaller-scale projects before venturing into a merger proposal.

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“I represent the part of town that borders Wellston,” Boyd said. “And back in the day, it was a beautiful place. I would love to do an economic development project with St. Louis County and the city of St. Louis where we could bring new jobs, new buildings to that particular neighborhood.”

Noting that he “prides himself on the value of relationships,” Boyd said he would want to forge closer ties with Stenger.

“As mayor, it’s incumbent upon me to build many relationships with mayors in St. Louis County and have a good relationship with the county executive,” he said. “We’re not going to agree on everything. But let’s just start with the small things we do agree on.”
 
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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