Introduction to Public Finance Report

Sponsored by the Missouri Council for a Better Economy, Better Together is a grassroots project born in response to growing public interest in addressing the fragmented nature of local government throughout St. Louis City and County, which dates back to 1876, when St. Louis City broke away from St. Louis County.

The resulting absence of a cohesive governmental structure left a void, and many smaller governments formed to fill it. This is why the 1.3 million people who call St. Louis home are served by 115 local governments, which include St. Louis City and County, as well as 90 municipalities and 23 fire districts. The costs associated with funding all 115 governments (excluding airport and water service fees) have reached a staggering $2 billion per year. To date, there has been no comprehensive single study that has looked across the City and County to determine whether the region could improve both service and cost by streamlining and eliminating redundancies and better serve the people of St. Louis.

Better Together is neither putting forth nor advocating for a specific plan, but rather seeks to act as a facilitator, a resource for information and tools, and a catalyst to spark discussion. Accordingly, we will drive an inclusive, transparent process of developing and assembling valuable information other organizations can use to craft their own plans for what the future of the region should look like, as well as judge plans put forth by others.

Better Together will examine how municipal services are delivered to the people who live within the boundaries of St. Louis City and County, compare the status quo to best practices, and identify opportunities for improved effectiveness and cost.

Throughout the next 16 months, Better Together will conduct six community-based studies, compile information, and make it understandable and publicly available. The staff and volunteers at Better Together will organize members of the community to work together to develop information about the performance of local governments. These community members will work with subject-matter experts to develop readily understood reports. Rather than rely solely on consultants to drive the data collection, Better Together is inviting St. Louis residents to participate in dozens of sponsored discussions and forums.

This work will show how taxpayer funds are being spent each year and will provide a basis for informed discussion about how best to move forward.

Studies will be conducted in succession and in the following order: Public Finance; Economic Development; Public Health; Public Safety; Parks, Recreation and Infrastructure; and finally, Administration. By 2015, it is expected a very clear picture of current practices will be laid out, which will put all interested parties in a position to compare current practices against best practices. From there, groups and organizations will have the information and data they need to craft proposals for how St. Louis City and County move forward in the future.

As the project’s name implies, this work will be done Better Together – the future of the St. Louis region will naturally be determined Better Together, with widespread and inclusive participation from people throughout both the City and County.

Purpose of the Public Finance Study 

The Public Finance study is not intended to provide analysis or to compare the finances of individual municipalities or fire districts. Rather, it is meant to provide an overview of how we as a region operate financially and also to provide the basic financial information that will lead to an informed dialogue around the topic of public finance and the remaining five studies.

Another goal of this study is to provide comprehensive and searchable data to citizens so that they may have access to any and all information that Better Together has received from the 115 governments providing municipal services in St. Louis City and St. Louis County. The collection of the data contained in this study took hundreds of hours and several thousand dollars to compile. It is now readily and freely available to the public at www.bettertogetherstl.com in the belief that it will provide the basis for an informed discussion of how we as a region provide municipal services.

Sources for Information and Statistics 

In December 2013, Better Together issued requests for information to St. Louis City, St. Louis County, 90 municipalities in St. Louis County, and 23 fire districts.  The request asked for:

  • A line item budget for the current or most recent fiscal year
  • A table of organization including salaries of all paid employees and their job titles/functions
  • A complete and accurate list of all current assets and equipment owned (valued over $5,000)
  • A complete and accurate list of all noncurrent liabilities
  • Copies of all professional service agreements

Compiled over the course of the past two months and with the prompt assistance of many municipalities and fire districts, this information is now publicly and readily available in this report and through the Better Together database.

In addition to the listed documents, many of which will not be utilized until later studies, Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFRs) were gathered to compile basic financial information for the 115 governments in St. Louis City and County. In order to ensure that the specific information gathered from these documents accurately depicted the financial health and practices of the St. Louis City and County region, the Better Together team worked with finance professionals to design both this report and the database located on the Better Together website.

In order to allow citizens to see from where the information contained in the report and the database was collected, footnotes are available as a guide to the original source documents, which are also available in the Better Together library located online.

Methodology

Prior to requesting the information contained in the Public Finance report, Better Together staff met with financial professionals at Stifel, Nicolaus & Company, Incorporated, who provided assistance with compiling information and developing the Better Together database.  In addition to the guidance of these public finance professionals, Bob Baer agreed to serve as Chair for Better Together’s Public Finance Study and oversaw the study process.  Baer is a retired local business executive who is Past-President and CEO of Metro and has also served as chairman of the St. Louis Metropolitan Sewer District and the St. Louis Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority.

Subsequent to establishing the appropriate oversight for the study, requests for this information were sent to each municipality, fire district, St. Louis City, and St. Louis County.  An overwhelming majority of the municipalities and fire districts, as well as St. Louis City and St. Louis County, responded to our requests with the information sought.  This information, when necessary, supplemented the Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFRs) that were also collected either through the official websites for each governing body or through a separate request.

Financial information that arrived electronically was added to the Better Together data library, and the appropriate information was gathered and added to the Public Finance spreadsheet that is attached to this report and provides the information for the Better Together database at www.bettertogetherstl.com.

Financial information that arrived via mail or that was picked up by Better Together staff in hard copy has been scanned and added in electronic form to the Better Together data library.  As with the electronically sent materials, the appropriate figures were added to the Public Finance spreadsheet.

In order to ensure accuracy, the data for each municipality, fire district, St. Louis City, and St. Louis County was checked no fewer than three times by research fellows and Better Together staff.  As a final accuracy measure, the methodology employed was reviewed by financial professionals, who also provided spot checks of the data to ensure its accuracy and prevent errors.