Curious Louis Answers: Your Questions About Better Together’s St. Louis City-County Merger Plan
Updated at 7 a.m. on Feb. 11 with answers to 11 more questions about the proposed metro government structure — Better Together has released its report recommending a St. Louis-St. Louis County merger. The proposal would create St. Louis Metro — a unified government that would merge city and county offices — and restrict the taxing authority of St. Louis County municipalities.
The proposal would also combine municipal courts and police departments.
Members of Better Together Dave Leipholtz, director of community-based studies, Marius Johnson-Malone, deputy director of community studies, and Nancy Rice, executive director, spoke with St. Louis Public Radio about the proposed plan. Here’s how they answered key questions about the merger:
Metro government and municipal structure
How will the new St. Louis Metro system be organized?
The government will consist of a mayor, prosecuting attorney, assessor and a 33-member council.
How are the 33 council members selected, and how will the districts be established?
After a demographer who is not in a political position draws the districts during a two-year transition period, people will file in 2022 to run in the 33 council districts. Some of the newly elected council members will serve two-year terms — while others will serve four-year terms. That’s a way to avoid the entire council from being elected every two years.
What will happen to the St. Louis Board of Aldermen?
St. Louis will not keep its Board of Aldermen. The city instead will have a municipal corporation which will handle debt and other outstanding assets for the city. The St. Louis Board of Aldermen and the St. Louis County Council will dissolve in 2023 once the metro government’s council members are elected.
Can municipalities still keep their legislative bodies? If so, what laws can those cities pass?
Municipalities can keep their elected leaders and pass laws that only affect its specific city, as long as that law isn’t interfering with larger provisions, Leipholtz said.
“It’s parks, trash, fire; Just general administrative stuff within there,” Leipholtz said.
What services will municipalities still provide?
St. Louis County’s cities would still be able to offer parks-and-recreation programs, trash service and general administrative functions. They would not be able to have their own police departments or municipal courts.
Why do the powers of the new government transfer to the county instead of the city during the transition period and beyond?
Better Together leaders said St. Louis County's chief executive, prosecutor and assessor will assume their corresponding offices in the new metro government from 2022-2025 for size reasons. St. Louis County has more than three times the population of St. Louis.
The Better Together proposal took cues from other cities, including Nashville, Indianapolis and Louisville, which faced similar mergers.
“When we’re consolidating a million and three-hundred thousand, that just seemed to be what the other regions had done,” said Dave Leipholtz, the director of community studies for Better Together.
Could this proposal weaken minority representation because the metro government will have a majority-white population?
Rice said that members of the new 33-person council will be able to create caucuses that advocate for specific minority groups. And since the leader of that chamber will be elected by other council members, it’s possible that an African-American could become its leader.
“Our rules would be that we don’t elect the president of the council or the officers of the council,” Rice said. “The council members themselves would elect it, and that’s just one more way that we try to ensure that through a caucus, minority voices are amplified.”
St. Louis County has elected two black countywide officeholders, even though it has a majority-white population.
What is the timeline of the merger?
The proposal is expected to be on the November 2020 ballot. A two-year transition period would begin Jan. 1, 2021, if the proposal is approved. The transition period would freeze elections and budgets in St. Louis and St. Louis County until the foundation of a new government is established.
By Jan. 1, 2023, the 33 council members will be in power. The St. Louis County Executive, County Prosecutor and County Assessor will serve a two-year tenure from the beginning of 2023 through the beginning of 2025. (Assuming they all stay in office through January 2021, those three leaders would be St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell and St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman.) Leipholtz said this is to ensure a completely new government won’t begin at the same time.
Are there any other cities that have attempted this merger?
Several city-county mergers have been completed in the U.S. Some of the most notable mergers happened in Nashville, Louisville and Indianapolis. Better Together staff said those mergers helped establish the foundation for the St. Louis proposal.
How will public works be consolidated among municipalities, St. Louis and St. Louis County?
Public works functions, such as construction and infrastructure for public use, will be in the hands of the new metro government.
I read that 10 deputy mayors will be appointed by the mayor once the merger takes place. Later will the deputy mayors be elected?
The Better Together plan calls for the appointment of four deputy mayors. Community Engagement and Equity, Economic Development and Innovation, Public Health and Safety, and Community Development and Housing. Appointments of deputy mayors will be made by the metro mayor. Any additional deputy mayors can be appointed by the metro mayor in the future. Deputy mayors will not be elected.
Clayton is more central to the area than downtown St. Louis, so how come downtown will be the seat of government?
Downtown St. Louis was chosen because of available space. Better Together officials said Clayton doesn't have the space and resources to house all of the offices.
What will happen to the employees and retirees of city and county government when they cease to exist and become the metro city?
Current employees will keep their jobs, according to Better Together, but eventually some positions will be eliminated through attrition and retirement. Pension benefits and liabilities for city and county staff will be honored and fully paid by the metro government.
What would happen to municipality street department workers?
Street department workers would be employed by the metro government.
Who will take over services now provided by the county to unincorporated areas, like trash pickup?
Trash services will not be affected in the county. Trash services for St. Louis will be determined during the transition period.
If you have a concern about a street repair and currently live in the county, under the merger, who do you contact for repair?
Streets will be categorized as a “general service” governed under the metro government. Residents could submit concerns over street repairs to the metro government street department.
What will happen with utilities? Who will control the utilities? St. Louis currently doesn't meter water for example. Will that remain?
Utilities for specific municipalities and St. Louis County would continue as is. Changes to these services would need approval from the municipality or the metro council.
Will there be a single commission or entity to review tax increment financing, abatements and other development incentives?
The metro council would have authority over TIFs, abatements and other development incentives.
What about municipal libraries? Will they continue to be local?
Municipal libraries and other political subdivisions will not be affected.
How will the merger affect the two boards of election commissioners? One in the city and one in the county? Will they combine into one?
The amendment directs the Missouri General Assembly to provide a board of election commissioner or other election authority for the metro government, but until such time, it requires the two existing boards of election commissioners to cooperate in conducting elections.
Police and courts
What will happen to the district circuit courts?
St. Louis County and the city operate under the 21st and 22nd circuit courts respectively. Leaders of Better Together suggest those courts merge but have some reservations.
“We are leery of if we get into telling the larger circuits what to do,” Leipholtz said.
What will happen to the ranks and hierarchy within the police departments?
The structure of the departments’ units and patrols will be decided by the metro government during the transition, said Marius Johnson-Malone, deputy director of community studies for Better Together.
The transition government, led by the St. Louis mayor and St. Louis County executive, will select a metro police chief to create the structure of the new department, Johnson-Malone said.
The merger will also add a deputy mayor for public health and safety that would be selected by the new metro mayor. Three other deputy mayors including one for community engagement and equity, economic development and innovation and community development and housing will also be appointed by the metro mayor.
What happens to the city earnings tax?
The earnings tax will phase out over a 10-year period. Rice said the proceeds from that one-percent tax on people who work or live in St. Louis will be redirected to pay off the city’s debt and pension obligations, which Rice estimated at around $700 million to $800 million.
The St. Louis earnings tax makes up about $164 million — or 33 percent of the city’s general fund.
Will municipalities still keep their specific taxes?
Municipalities will retain their taxes if those taxes are dedicated to pay off a specific debt.
Most sales taxes would go the newly created government. Cities retain their power to levy property taxes.
Will the city's 1-percent earnings tax be imposed on all businesses in St. Louis County?
No. If you are currently paying the earnings tax now in the city, you will still have to pay it if the merger happens. However, it will be phased out over a 10-year period.
What will happen to school and fire districts under the merger?
Neither will be affected by the proposal.
Will the school districts ever merge?
Hard to say. There are two lines of thought: The first is that the passage of the merger may prompt momentum to deal with schools next. But there's also a fear that if the merger passes without support from the city and county, it may make it more difficult to deal with some of the lingering education issues that will still be glaring after the merger.
Effect on counties and residents
How will this merger affect surrounding counties?
The proposal would only merge St. Louis and St. Louis County. Better Together proponents say surrounding communities would benefit from the merger through economic growth.
“In Indianapolis, for every person they added in their population since they consolidated, which I think is around 60,000 or so, they’ve added two jobs,” Leipholtz said. “Which means people from outside of that urban core or suburban core are coming in to work.”
What will happen to ordinances within the city and county?
Ordinances in St. Louis County municipalities will remain in effect as long as they don't conflict with the metro government's laws. Residents will have the opportunity to debate legislation between the city and county during a public comment and outreach period during the transition period. The metro government council will address any conflicting and anti-discrimination ordinances.
What will happen to the pensions?
Members of Better Together said pensions and liabilities will be fully paid and honored.
Who will vote on this proposal?
Better Together says the proposal would need to go to a statewide vote, because it needs to change the state constitution.
Municipal leaders in St. Louis County have started the first step in challenging this approach. Municipal leaders voted unanimously Thursday to begin the process of creating a Board of Freeholders. Mayor Lyda Krewson, County Executive Steve Stenger and Gov. Mike Parson would appoint 19 people to study a potential merger. Any proposal would then be voted on by only city and county residents.
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Reporters Jason Rosenbaum and Rachel Lippmann contributed to this article
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