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Firefighter residency latest flap in divisive city-state relations

By Maria Altman, St. Louis Public Radio


St. Louis, MO. –

The city of St. Louis and the state of Missouri have long had a strained relationship.

This spring's legislative session didn't help.

Among several bills that raised hackles at city hall, lawmakers in Jefferson City passed legislation allowing St. Louis firefighters to live outside of city limits.

If the governor signs it Mayor Francis Slay has warned there will be a lawsuit.

It's the latest example of how politics are widening the wedge between the state and the city.

At Lafayette Fire Company No. 1, a St. Louis restaurant owned by firefighters, the week-day lunch crowd is settling in.

Not surprisingly most of the clientele here say they support letting firefighters live where they want.

"I think it should be the firemen's decision," said Pat Scherck, a St. Louis resident for 50 years.

Scherck said she followed the news this past spring as lawmakers in Jefferson City voted to allow St. Louis firefighters to move out of the city after seven years of service, despite the objections of City Hall.

The ensuing fire fight hasn't surprised Scherck.

"I wish the city of St. Louis and the state of Missouri could get together on everything," she said. "They always fuss and fight over everything."

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay says state lawmakers clearly overstepped their bounds.

He says city residents, whose taxes pay firefighters' salaries, should make the final call on where firefighters can live, not lawmakers in Jefferson City.

"I think this is an insult to the people of St. Louis, and I'm going to continue fighting their cause and continue fighting on their behalf," Slay said. "We will pursue this legally."

The bill's sponsor, Republican state Senator Jim Lembke, lives in Lemay in St. Louis County.

He says city firefighters came to him after trying and failing to work with the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.

"Since I represent a portion of St. Louis city and this was an important issue to them and their families as far as where they educate their children, and quite frankly, this is still America and any individual should be able to live where they choose," Lembke said.

St. Louis police have had that right since 2005.

But it wasn't the city's decision. The majority of the Police Board which oversees the department is appointed by Missouri's governor; a remnant of the Civil War.

St. Louis has been trying to wrest back control for nearly 150 years. This past spring a bill to do so made it onto the State House floor, only to fail.

University of Missouri-St. Louis Political Science Professor David Robertson says things in Missouri go back a long way.

He says stark political differences between urban and rural areas are common across the U.S.

But in Missouri he says the struggle over St. Louis' autonomy has roots in the Civil War when the governor and legislature had Confederate sympathies and the city leaned toward the Union.

"I think it is very difficult within anyone's living memory to imagine a time when out-state legislators didn't think St. Louis was doing a poor job governing itself," Robertson said.

Senator Lembke admits that feeling remains in Jefferson City today. He points to the city's more than $40 million budget shortfall as one reason why.

Mayor Slay says a big part of the city's financial difficulties are due to skyrocketing pension costs for police and firefighters.

And he points out the state oversees those pension systems, not the city.

For St. Louis Public Radio, I'm Maria Altman.

More on this topic:
Read an article about the bill's history.
Read an article about police local control.


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