St. Louis and its municipalities have come under fire after the August shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. While some are calling for consolidation, local leaders say there’s a reason the municipalities exist.
“Most people came into these communities in the ’30, ’40 and ’50s to start these villages to escape from the city of St. Louis,” Normandy Mayor Patrick Green told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Thursday. “It put them closer to the mayor to make decisions quicker, faster, to resolve problems that would affect their families (and) investments. That makes St. Louis unique.”
There’s a perception, though, that municipalities are taking advantage of residents through their court costs and traffic fines, he said. State Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, has proposed a bill that would cut a municipality’s general operating revenue from traffic fines and court fees from 30 percent to 10 percent.
“There are things that we could do better, but I think that we need to sit down and have a serious discussion before you try to pass bills that will impact not only our communities but the state as a whole,” Cool Valley Mayor Viola Murphy said. “Reducing us from 30 (percent) to 10 (percent) is rather drastic.”
Murphy would not say how much of her city’s revenue comes from fines and fees, but said it was less than 30 percent.
“We run our government as efficient and effective as some of the larger municipalities,” she said. “And I would say that we do a better job of looking at services. What we want for our citizens is the same thing that others want for their citizens: Good service, being able to communicate with elected officials that they have voted in. Small sometimes is better because what you have are people that get involved in communities.”
For Cool Valley, lowering fines and fees revenue would “be a great problem,” Murphy said. “I don’t think we’d be able to give the service that our citizens deserve. It’s all about public safety. Our residents have the right, just like every one of us, to feel that they’re safe and they get good service.”
“If you take the revenue away … then you’re going to have to eliminate something,” she said. “The elimination would probably be the police department.”
Cool Valley’s police department used to be 60 percent of the city’s budget, Murphy said. Five years ago, Cool Valley began partnering with nearby Normandy for police services, saving the city $200,000 a year and cutting crime by 40 percent, she said.
“If you eliminate some of our officers that are there to serve our community, I think that would hinder the progress of what we’re doing.”
Green said Normandy loses money on its courts and police department.
“Basically, on a monthly basis, my city can lose anywhere between $50,000 and $80,000 in the court system after we pay all the costs of policing,” he said. “When people see lines outside, they think that means there’s a cash cow. No. Those are people who’ve broken the law, and basically, unfortunately, we’re enforcing it for everyone’s safety. It doesn’t mean it’s a perfect system, but the goal is to always improve it.”
Besides, Green, said, the municipalities in north county are limited in how they can generate revenue.
“The difference between maybe west county and our areas is we’re landlocked,” he said. “We can’t put a casino or a moat in my town. I can’t build a Sam’s because I’m landlocked. So this idea that we can just find money anywhere is a myth. We have to basically realize that what we definitely are doing is collaborating to create efficiencies so we are smarter.”
Murphy also said several municipalities, including Cool Valley, participated in amnesty programs and had payment plans in their courts before Brown’s death.
Cool Valley and Normandy are part of Vision 24:1, a Beyond Housing effort to unite the 24 municipalities that make up the Normandy School District. The communities are working together to cut costs and operate more efficiently.
Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, is leading an effort to eliminate some of St. Louis County’s smaller municipalities. Similarly, the Better Together coalition is exploring whether or not St. Louis County and city should consider merging services. But Beyond Housing CEO Chris Krehmeyer said better government should be the goal, not consolidation.
“That decision shouldn’t be driven by legislative process in our state capital without any acknowledgement or understanding about impact here at the local level,” Krehmeyer said. “I think ultimately it should be the people who live in these communities and pay taxes. If they believe that they’re getting good governance and services at the level they need, then no. If, however, they said I’m not getting the services I want, my taxes are not being utilized the way that I want, then those people in that community should have every right to make that decision.”
“We were better before Better Together — much better,” Green said. “As a matter of fact, Better Together could learn some things from us that would make them better.”
“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.