Attendees at a town hall meeting on Better Together’s plan for a St. Louis city-county merger peppered the group’s representatives with questions Wednesday night, including why the plan didn’t include schools, and concern about a statewide vote deciding the issue.
Greater St. Mark Family Church in north St. Louis County hosted the first of a series of area town hall meetings on the merger. Better Together capped registration at 150 people.
The Better Together plan doesn’t consolidate local school districts. Marius Johnson-Malone, Better Together’s deputy director of community studies and the host of the event, said a focus on school districts would require a separate effort.
“Education and local governments — whether it makes sense or not — are two separate political subdivisions,” Johnson-Malone said. “The way that they’re laid out from a legal perspective is they’re different parts of the constitution.”
The issue was a sticking point for several attendees, including Gail Woods, a resident of Black Jack.
“With anything that you’re building or trying to rebuild, you start with a good foundation,” Woods said. “Children are the foundation, education is the foundation. If you’re not looking at education and programs for our kids, no plan will work.”
Better Together has also said that fire-protection districts, parks and recreation and trash services wouldn’t be affected by the plan.
Better Together has maintained that a statewide vote is necessary to make the potential changes recommended by the group’s task force.
“The problems we have in St. Louis are unique; we’re starting from a different place than any of the other governments started,” said Johnson-Malone. “In Missouri, there is currently not a way to do what is recommended, and so that required an amendment to the constitution.”
Others asked follow-up questions relating to potential alternatives for a statewide vote. Johnson-Malone said alternatives — including creating a local Board of Freeholders to come up with a plan — were considered by the group. He said that such a board would have little ability to consolidate certain functions identified by the task force, including policing.
A Board of Freeholders is backed by the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis. The league is trying to collect about 20,000 signatures from St. Louis and St. Louis County residents to create the board. St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and County Executive Steve Stenger, who are backing the Better Together plan, would appoint nearly all of the 19 board members.
Other attendees expressed support for the Better Together proposal.
“People don’t really understand the benefit of what this means to us as citizens and all the taxes we’re paying,” said Wanda Lane, a resident of Bellefontaine Neighbors. “We as citizens are suffering for that.”
Johnson-Malone said he hopes future town hall meetings on the proposal will bring more people into the discussion.
“This is something that’s going to be an ongoing conversation with the public,” Johnson-Malone said. “I think in some instances folks won’t be satisfied with the answers, but we’re going to do our best to be honest and make sure that as many people are aware of what this means for their lives.”
Better Together hopes to collect about 160,000 signatures to put the proposal on the November 2020 statewide ballot. The next town hall meeting will take place at Carpenters Hall in St. Louis on March 14. A complete list of upcoming meetings can be found on the Better Together website.
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