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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.

Krewson Not Giving Up On City-County Merger But Holds Off On Freeholders Push

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson gives her State of the City address to the Board of Aldermen on May 23, 2019.
Corrine Ruff I St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson gives her State of the City address to the Board of Aldermen on May 23, 2019.

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson used the first State of the City address in recent memory to continue her advocacy for a city-county merger.

But with the demise of the statewide Better Together plan, Krewson isn’t rushing to start a process that could place a merger proposal before city and county voters.

Krewson spoke to the Board of Aldermen before its weekly meeting began Thursday. Alderman John Collins-Muhammad, D-21st Ward, had invited the mayor to address the chamber, similarly to how the president makes a State of the Union address.

Among other things, Krewson detailed her administration’s effort to fight crime, pare down vacant buildings and spur economic development. Near the end of her speech, she reiterated her support to merge St. Louis and St. Louis County — even after a group seeking such a move withdrew its statewide petition earlier this month.

“The competition for jobs, for development and for opportunity should not be between St. Louis and Wildwood — or Affton and Hazelwood,” Krewson said. “The real competition should be between St. Louis and Nashville. Or St. Louis and Louisville. Or St. Louis and Indianapolis or Dallas or Denver or overseas.”

Proponents of the Better Together merger plan pulled the plug on their statewide effort earlier this month, citing opposition to having Missouri voters, not just local residents, decide on the proposal. They also cited the resignation of former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, who was supposed to be “metro mayor” under an earlier iteration of the plan. Stenger pleaded guilty to public corruption charges.

Krewson said the failure of the statewide merger effort “represents a new opportunity for us to come together, to listen and to hear one another more.”

“And to develop a new path forward to achieve better outcomes for our constituents, our residents and our businesses,” Krewson said. “I look forward to working with you all on that.”

Some municipal officials, especially in St. Louis County, were pushing Krewson and St. Louis County Executive Sam Page to appoint what’s known as the Board of Freeholders. That group could eventually present a merger proposal to St. Louis and St. Louis County voters. Both Stenger and Krewson had panned that idea, especially since local votes on merging the city and county have failed.

Krewson, though, said appointing a Board of Freeholders was “premature” so soon after the Better Together plan’s ended.

“I think we need to listen more and listen first before we just say exactly what we’re going to next from the top down,” she said. “That’s not the approach I think we should be taking.”

Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed, who opposed the Better Together plan, said Krewson was wise to hold off on any advocacy for a city-county merger at this time.

“There’s so much work that needs to be done on that,” Reed said. “And in the wake of some of the other things that are going on in the county, it’s just not the appropriate time to drive full steam ahead on that right now.”

Residence rule advocacy

Krewson also urged aldermen to rethink the requirement for some employees to live in the city, contending it’s an impediment to hiring good people. Past efforts to have city voters decide on that issue have faltered.

“Expanding the pool of applicants is not a cure all. It’s not going to be the only thing we need to do. But it does remove one barrier to hiring,” Krewson said. “Particularly for folks who have some experience in their field, but who might already be engaged in their community, in their neighborhood and their schools and their church — and may be unwilling to move out of that for a job here.”

Reed said there will likely be a renewed push for voters to decide on the residency requirement over the next year.

“I would imagine that there will be some opposition to it, but from what I’m hearing, I think it makes it through,” Reed said. “A number of people like myself will support the idea of letting it be on the ballot. For the most part, if the bills are structured appropriately and if they’re truly doing what they’re stating it will do, we should give the voters an opportunity to at least vote on it and see where they stand on it.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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