Better Together’s Co-Chairmen, Ambassador Bert Walker & Joe Adorjan, submitted this guest column that was published in the July 11, 2017 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Recently, the Ellisville City Council voted to place a measure on the ballot regarding St. Louis city and county reunification and recommended opposing any such reunification. While their effort was not the first of this kind, it is disappointing. The topic of regional fragmentation and dysfunction is an important one and it is precisely why Better Together was formed.
Over three years ago, a group of community, business and civic leaders formed Better Together in response to the decline in population and lack of economic growth across the St. Louis region. The result of our organization’s work is the most comprehensive source of data and research on how St. Louis city, St. Louis County and its 89 municipalities function as a region. This research shows that the St. Louis region spends over $750 million more per year on municipal services than comparable regions. While this figure is staggering, it is of equal concern that this overspending has not contributed to a thriving region with superior services and growing economic opportunity.
In June, Better Together released an updated report that shows overspending is growing rapidly, specifically $119 million in increased spending in the past three years alone. This increase was the result of exactly 100 tax increases in the St. Louis city and county region over the past five years. It is increasingly clear that our current structure is unsustainable.
In response to this research, Better Together, with the support of County Executive Steve Stenger and Mayor Lyda Krewson, formed a task force to identify best practices and possible reforms to our current structure. The task force is led by Suzanne Sitherwood, the CEO of Spire; Arindam Kar, a partner at the law firm of Bryan Cave; and Dr. Will Ross, a physician and assistant dean for diversity at Washington University School of Medicine. This talented group of leaders will spend the next year examining options for the St. Louis region. This process will include comprehensive outreach designed to get feedback from citizens throughout the area. At the end of this yearlong effort, recommendations will be made to the public for further discussion and hopefully, action.
This is a serious conversation. And a difficult one. Better Together’s research has demonstrated how our current fragmented structure has caused unproductive internal competition and troubling disparities in service provision. These problems hold us back from reaching our immense potential as a region, and so this conversation is one that must be had.
It is concerning that the city council of Ellisville would oppose the yearlong study endorsed by the county executive of St. Louis County and the mayor of St. Louis. Better Together, along with citizens and regional leaders, have worked hard over the past three years to create reports that are data-driven, comprehensive and objective.
We understand the concerns of the elected officials. Change can be intimidating. However, as the former mayor of Louisville, Jerry Abramson, so eloquently stated, “You cannot have a growing, thriving region in the 21st century with a 19th century structure.”
This is a pivotal moment for the St. Louis region. The declines in population in both the city and the county, as well as the absence of economic growth in the region, require action. We cannot be a region impeded by fear of change. We must instead be one driven forward with a bold, informed and unified vision.
We cannot continue to stand by idly as we watch generations of our children and grandchildren leave to pursue careers in other growing regions. We must not dwell solely on accomplishments of the past at the expense of looking forward and investing in the infrastructure necessary to compete in a 21st century global economy.
It has been said that if you want to go quickly, go alone; and if you want to go far, go together. Whatever our path forward, it must be bold, data-driven and most importantly, together. That path can only be determined if we are brave enough to have difficult conversations and possess the will to change. We truly hope that the leadership and residents throughout St. Louis County and the City of St. Louis will take part in this important conversation.