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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.

On the Trail: Joplin lawmaker says state should redesign St. Louis region; local officials balk

Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard told St. Louis Public Radio that St. Louis' governmental structure is woefully inefficient.
Carolina Hidalgo I St. Louis Public Radio
Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard told St. Louis Public Radio that St. Louis' governmental structure is woefully inefficient.

Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard hinted that next year’s legislative session could “shake up” the St. Louis region, especially if lawmakers back plans to combine St. Louis and St. Louis County or merge county municipalities.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Joplin Republican’s proclamation to St. Louis Public Radio elicited a mixed response. Some are willing to have the legislature help pare down the region’s cities, police departments and fire districts. Others, like Vinita Park Mayor James McGee, are not happy at the prospect of the state making wholesale changes to St. Louis’ governance, as opposed to St. Louis area residents.

“The people are the ones that we’re serving. We’re servants. We’re not authoritarians,” McGee said. “When you start the heavy-handedness, people are going to resist. Treat everybody the way you would want to be treated. How would you like it for somebody to force you into somebody else’s home?”

McGee knows a little about combining governments. He recently led a successful effort to merge Vinita Park with Vinita Terrace. And he’s also been a key figure in creating the Vinita Park-based North County Police Cooperative, which patrols a number of small county municipalities.

He said those consolidation efforts occurred because local leaders decided it was a good idea – not because the state or county government forced their hand.

“If these cities don’t want to merge, that’s their right. Why force someone to merge when they shouldn’t, when they don’t want to?” McGee said. “That’s why I was so successful, because we educated the residents and they saw the benefit of both of us coming together.”

Mixed reaction

Lyda Krewson dances with relatives, supporters and campaign staff after delivering her acceptance speech.
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Lyda Krewson dances with relatives, supporters and campaign staff after delivering her acceptance speech.

Richard’s comments stoked something of a varied reaction among St. Louis’ elected officials. St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, who publicly supports some kind of city-county merger, said she’s "open to having these types of conversations” that Richard wants to have.

“I'd like to see what the senator has in mind,” she said in a statement to St. Louis Public Radio. “We certainly want to work with the legislature.”

St. Louis Alderman Tom Oldenburg, D-16th Ward, said he wouldn’t be opposed if the state made it easier for local leaders to pare down the region’s governments. He said that would be preferable to passing a bill eliminating all of the county’s municipalities.

“I think it needs to be thoughtfully executed,” Oldenburg said. “And we can incrementally allow the landscape to have less governments, less units of government that ultimately will save us money.”

Other officials, such as St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby, took a dimmer view of Richard’s comments. The University City Democrat said if lawmakers had given St. Louis County municipalities a say in crafting a wide-ranging municipal courts bill in 2015, then it wouldn’t have run into substantial legal problems.

“You cannot make those kinds of decisions without including the very people that it affects,” Erby said.

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger declined to directly address Richard's comments, but emphasized that regional leaders already work together on a multitude of issues.

"One regional issue we’ve been working on right now is Metro safety, and we’ve been focusing on our efforts on that," Stenger said. "And now that’s coming to a conclusion and we have our plan together and we’re moving forward on that plan, I think you will see more of a focus between [Krewson] and I on local issues and making determinations of priorities and taking input from the public and developing those priorities."

Taking it statewide?

Alderman Jeffrey Boyd at a Board of Aldermen meeting in February 2017.
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Alderman Jeffrey Boyd at a Board of Aldermen meeting in February.

The Missouri Constitution requires any proposal to combine St. Louis and St. Louis County to be decided only by city and county voters. But it’s possible that lawmakers could put a city-county union proposal on the statewide ballot. That may make a plan easier for legislators to pass, given the well-established opposition to such an idea throughout St. Louis County.

But that idea isn’t universally popular among city or county officials.

“It’s not us locally controlling our destiny,” said St. Louis Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, D-22nd Ward. “The people that are most impacted should be the ones that govern ourselves.”

County Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, was even more emphatic: “It shouldn’t be statewide. This is a St. Louis County-St. Louis City issue.”

“We should be able to decide how we want to be governed, not someone in Pike County or any other county out there,” Harder said. “And we wouldn’t want to do the same to them. I don’t think we want to tell them how they want to be governed. If it comes to a vote or referendum or something, it needs to be dealt with here in St. Louis.”

Richard didn’t return a request for comment about the feedback he’s received about his proposals. Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, said she’s interested to see if debate over St. Louis’ regional structure actually comes to fruition next year.

“I don’t know where I am with a city-county merger,” Walsh said. “I live in an incorporated part of the county and I love the city I live in. I like the trash service. I like the fact that my kids could walk to a swimming pool when they were kids.”

On the airport

Arguably the most colorful part of Richard’s St. Louis-centric statement was when he alluded to leasing St. Louis Lambert International Airport, but figuring out a way to prevent the city from spending the money from that deal on “umbrellas and stuff.”

Airport Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge said on St. Louis on the Air last week that any privatization push would involve the Airport Commission, the City of St. Louis, the FAA and possibly a vote of the people.

She said the state legislature would likely play a limited role, adding “they may decide to be supportive or non-supportive of it, but the role they would play is very unclear.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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