The St. Louis Public Radio newsroom has been fielding a wide range of questions from listeners the past few weeks concerning Better Together’s recently unveiled proposal for a reunification of St. Louis and St. Louis County.
On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh and several STLPR journalists provided answers to a number of those Curious Louis queries that haven’t already been answered – and took additional questions from listeners as well.
Joining the live discussion were political editor Fred Ehrlich and reporters Chad Davis and Jason Rosenbaum. Here’s how they answered some of those questions about the merger:
Will public transportation for county employment opportunities for city residents be enhanced?
Davis recently spoke to Better Together’s Marius Johnson-Malone, who said that Bi-State Development would work on connecting the government’s new employees with public transportation.
“So it's something that that corporation would really focus on if the merger does go through — how public transportation is going to expand, if it does or not. So it's really on their front at this moment,” Davis said.
Will the merger help integrate segregated school districts?
“This proposal does not make any changes to how school districts are drawn …[Better Together] was very upfront that they weren't going to do anything with school districts.
So in one respect, it's hard to criticize Better Together for not producing a report that has an aspect that they never promised to address. On the other hand, there's no question that our economically and racially segregated school system in St. Louis is a big part of our fragmentation; it’s a reason why people move to St. Louis County,” Rosenbaum explained.
How will municipalities and public schools make up for the lost income from sales tax revenue, traffic tickets and the earnings tax?
“Revenue would still go into municipalities; they still have property taxes and utility taxes and fees for services. So those are things that would still go into the municipality. Also if they have a sales tax that's dedicated to a specific debt, that would still stay within that actual community,” Davis said.
Has anyone floated a two-step plan where a statewide vote would essentially get rid of the constitutional bar that prevents the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County from coming together, and then leave the actual city-county merger up to the local voters?
“That has certainly been brought up as an alternative to this,” Rosenbaum said. “I have heard it suggested by people that don't like this plan, but ... the reality is, if this gets voted on by the state, this is our new government.”
How would elections be overseen?
“There would be a transition period where the current different [election boards] would work together with the transition team, but ultimately, there would be basically one election authority,” Ehrlich said.
Will the merger stop municipal competition over stores? Will it lead to fewer TIFs and result in different distribution of sales taxes?
“There's always going to be competition about where a store goes, but one of the things this new government does is it places the economic development incentives in the hands of the Metro government,” Rosenbaum said. “Which means that … Richmond Heights can't necessarily put a TIF down to lure a big store or big company there from Brentwood. So I think conceivably, that could end that intra-municipal competition, or at least curtail it.”
What will happen to a municipality's reserve funds?
“They'll stay with the corresponding municipal district, just like [how] other assets and liabilities will remain there,” David said.
Why will the fire departments not be consolidated?
“I suspect Better Together hasn’t addressed this except to say that they're not in the plan; it's similar to the school district issue, that it was just another really big chunk to take on and they thought they had enough on their plate to do,” Ehrlich said.
Rosenbaum added that from a political perspective, “firefighters have pretty strong unions … that have a statewide reach, and it probably wouldn't be advantageous for Better Together to have that type of interest group campaigning against them from a statewide perspective.”
What is the specific constitutional change needed to approve the merger?
“There are just so many larger things that [the city and county] would have to merge, such as the [municipal] courts and also just the departments for police. It's just very difficult for them to do that without any type of constitutional amendment,” Davis said.
Will all Metro employees move downtown, or will there be satellite offices?
“As far as we know, there will be still offices in Clayton and offices downtown. I don't think [Better Together] have gotten to the specifics of what departments will be will be where,” Ehrlich said.
Will the city's water system potentially being privatized?
“If a city or municipality has water service then they can kind of keep that deal,” David said. Ehrlich added that “Better Together has said they're leaving utilities untouched in this.”
Is there more opposition or support for the city-merger plan at this point in time?
“There are several really big sticking points right now that people don't like ... the statewide vote, people don't like that, they don't like the possibility of elected officials taking office without being elected. There's certainly support for some parts of the plan. But most of the people I talked to have pretty specific objections and pretty strong objections,” Ehrlich said.
“I would say it's divided,” Rosenbaum added. “The business community in St. Louis clearly wants this, I think that there are some elements of the Democratic Party in St. Louis that want this and frankly, there are Republicans in the legislature who want this and it may be beyond just political reasons; they may look at St. Louis from afar and think the way we're organized is just crazy.
On the other hand, I think it also is driving a lot of opposition from Republicans, especially in St. Louis County, who under this plan would never be able to win county-wide office again; the African-American political community and even some ‘progressives,’ who may actually be amenable to a city-county merger but don't like various aspects of the plan. It is certainly provoking vigorous debate and it's not splitting along traditional political lines, which may be one of the reasons this is such an interesting all-encompassing story to cover.”
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex Heuer, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.
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