By the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Board
This is the story about 89 little engines that couldn’t. They thought they could, they thought they could, but try as St. Louis city and 88 surrounding municipalities did to get themselves independently over that gigantic hill of regional dysfunction, their little engines just weren’t up to the task.
On Monday, a better idea emerged: Why not synchronize all those little engines to work in unison toward a shared goal of regional dynamism? The nonprofit group Better Together formally proposed its plan to end fragmentation and unite St. Louis city and county into what could become the nation’s ninth-largest city.
Critics are wasting no time in their scramble to defeat it. Nancy Rice, executive director of Better Together, told us last week that lawsuits should start flying thick and fast. The group expects to be in court with the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis by April 1.
The Municipal League represents independent local governments whose mayors, police chiefs and other senior officials have vested interests in the status quo. Better Together’s plan threatens to eliminate their jobs and expose the ridiculous ways that tiny government bureaucracies waste money doing the same job that major cities around the country do more efficiently with a single, unified system of governance.
St. Louisans will no doubt be told again and again that Better Together’s plan seeks to destroy proud community identities. In fact, the plan seeks the opposite by preserving the integrity of county municipalities. Reorganized as city districts, they would remain responsible for managing their own property and utility taxes, parks, trash collection and zoning. School and fire districts would remain intact.
But the plan would eliminate duplicative offices and halt the self-defeating practice where local governments compete to undercut each other with tax incentives to attract business investment. Such wasteful practices cost the region $750 million a year, Better Together estimates.
Under this plan, existing municipalities would remain responsible for all debts and pension obligations. St. Louis city would not be allowed to pass any of its debts to county residents, and vice versa. The plan also includes a 10-year phase-out of the city’s dreaded earnings tax.
Much controversy surrounds the plan’s call for a statewide referendum to decide this purely local issue. But it’s the law. Unification requires a constitutional amendment, which only can happen through a statewide vote.
Better Together’s plan resulted from years of study, polling and obtaining feedback through public forums. More than 10,000 residents were involved in crafting the final product. By contrast, last week’s counterproposal by the Municipal League seemed thrown together hastily, with minimal study but lots of emotion.
Sadly, courts will weigh in on this issue long before voters have their say. But a process of refinement and negotiation has finally begun toward restoring greater St. Louis to world-class grandeur.
Read the article at St. Louis Post-Dispatch.