St. Louis Public Radio — In Depth: Talking All Things City-County Merger With Reps From Better Together, Municipal League

By Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh talked with backers of two competing approaches to a potential reunification of the St. Louis and St. Louis County governments.

First up was a conversation with two staff members – Dave Leipholtz and Marius Johnson-Malone – from Better Together, the organization that formally unveiled a much-anticipated proposalfor a city-county merger on Monday after several years of study.

Following that in-depth interview was a discussion with Pat Kelly, executive director of the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis, which voted Jan. 24 to pursue an alternative route to possible reunification. Creve Coeur Mayor Barry Glantz also joined the conversation.

Ever since the buzz surrounding Better Together got going several weeks ago, St. Louis Public Radio listeners and readers have been sending along questions of their own about a potential city-county merger. Many of those questions informed the on-air conversations, as did other queries from regional residents who called in during the show.

Eleven of the question-and-answer exchanges with Leipholtz and Johnson-Malone were as follows:

Why is what you’re proposing better than what we have now?
Leipholtz: I think we have seen a drastic overspend in this region – we have a lot of inefficient government, we’re seeing declining population in both the city and the county … and I think it addresses several of the key issues we saw [when the study first started]. One was that we compete a lot internally for economic development, and what happens then is we have winners and losers. So we have communities here that rightfully say, “Hey, what we have here is great.” But then we have a lot that we know don’t have that. And so this seeks to really rise all boats, to bring us together to act as a region for the first time and to really guide strong economic development and public safety – and ensure a basic level of service throughout this region.

Is it fair to have the state decide an issue that really is aimed basically at the city and the county?
Johnson-Malone: I don’t know if fairness is the right way to put that question – it’s really a matter of what is the appropriate legal pathway with what is being proposed. The relationship between the city and the county is defined in the state constitution. That’s pretty unusual, but that’s the way it currently is. And so addressing that necessarily needs a constitutional amendment. When you look at what we heard from people in the community about the things that they prioritized around having reorganization, they talked about economic development, they talked about police and courts, and they also mentioned the ability to maintain the cultural identities of their communities. The only way to be able to get at those priorities is through a new class of county, and that requires a constitutional amendment with a statewide vote.

One of things that many people are talking about is the elimination of the earnings tax from the city of St. Louis … that’s a big chunk of revenue to lose; how do you make up for it?
Leipholtz: I think an important point on the earnings tax is that it’s not being eliminated – we’re actually ensuring that it goes through a ten-year phase out. So we don’t wake up on day one and [have] a $200 million hole in the budget. Some of the other things we’re looking at – consolidating county offices, as an example – [that’s] $60 million in savings. You start looking at the ability to right-size the government through attrition over a course of years just as that’s phasing out – that also is a huge savings point there. And so what it does is allow for that to be drawn down just at the same time that we’re really starting to see some of these efficiencies that we know will be there, and that we’ve seen in other regions. You look at Louisville, and they’re still seeing double-digit-million-dollar surpluses 15 years after their consolidation. And so we’ve looked at the math here, but we’ve also looked at the trend in other regions that have done this.

Another point with regard to the earnings tax is that Rex Sinquefield has really bankrolled what’s been happening so far and that he doesn’t want that tax – and that that’s what this is all about. Can you say that is or is not the case?
Johnson-Malone: I can’t speak to why he is supportive of this effort, but I can tell you that he is not been the driver behind this process or the work of the research. When we started this five years ago, Bert Walker was actually the one who started this effort and gave the initial funding to help us get our work off the ground, and we’ve had hundreds of donors over the course of the years. If you go to our website you can see a list of those donors. Rex Sinquefield is a supporter of our work, but he came to it at a later stage of the game because he liked what he saw coming out of our organization, not because he was trying to push any particular agenda. I mean, if he likes it for that reason, that’s wonderful, but it’s not been the primary thing or really the driver of any of the conversations at the taskforce level, at our staff level, over the course of our process.

Would police officers who are currently working for municipalities be brought over into a new metro police department, or would there be a reduction of officers due to consolidation?
Johnson-Malone: One of the things we found when we looked at policing … is that the number of police officers in the region is probably about right – we’re in the right ballpark – but how those resources are distributed across the region is probably not the way to do things as far as the most effective way of policing this region. The officers in [for example] Ballwin, or in a community, are going to be needed in this new police department. And assuming they come from a department that is accredited, that has sufficient training standards that live up to what that new standard will be, I think it would be reasonable to assume that they will be part of that new effort as well.

One of the things we’re hearing from our listeners concerns schools. One of the questions they ask is why the school districts are not being consolidated, with one listener writing that it “seems like a great opportunity to help bridge some divides and help out districts in need.”
Johnson-Malone: We’ve heard that feedback for the last five years over the course of our work. The reality is that schools were never really a scope of our organization’s work. We have from time to time looked at certain parts of it … the taskforce members themselves really wanted to look hard at how education would be affected in this, and they ultimately concluded that the work needed around trying to understand school consolidation was too great in scope to be a part of their work. And the other part of it is that schools are a separate political subdivision, they’re in a different part of the constitution, they’re governed by a different part of state law. However, there will be some positive effects, we think, from this reform. One of the things that we hope will come from this effort is a reduction in the competition for sales-tax revenue and other things, so there will be fewer TIFs issued, different things that are currently diverting money away from local school districts. We also think that more equitable zoning will allow for different types of housing to be built in other parts of the county and that more families will have opportunities to move across parts of the region to have school choice be a part of their decisions on where they live.

It's been about 24 hours since Better Together released its proposal for an #STL city-county merger, and we'll have representatives from the organization on today's noon show to discuss the plan. Which way are you leaning thus far? https://t.co/z2tF1JyfLB

— St. Louis on the Air (@STLonAir) January 29, 2019

What about merging legislation and ordinances? How is that going to be handled?
Leipholtz: When the metro city is created, the ordinances as they are in the municipalities– the city and the county – become the ordinances of the metro city. So they all stay in place and pertain to the geographic area where they are now. But what it does do is two things: One, during the transition process there’s a public comment and outreach period where people can bring to the attention of the counselor who’s in charge – because some of those laws will be in conflict and there will have to be a report on options of what to do with those, and that’ll be one of the first things the council does – but people from the public can come forward and discuss problematic regulations and ordinances and will be able to have conversation about that during that two-year transition period. The other thing is that to the extent there’s problematic ordinances, especially discriminatory ordinances, we now have a metro city council that can address this as a region.

Briefly, what do municipalities gain and what do they lose under this plan?
Johnson-Malone: Under the new system of governance these municipal districts would still have responsibility for fire protection if they currently do that service or would like to provide that service, [for] trash and recycling, [for] parks and recreation – and … they will have a first voice in zoning decisions. They’ll essentially be that first pass at those local issues. They will also be able to provide, if they want, any other service that the general government for the metro city doesn’t provide, assuming that they can pay for those services through the taxes levied within that municipal district – the property tax, the utility tax, other fees for service.

What about infrastructure, roads, bridges that might bridge these districts, for instance?
Leipholtz: I think that’s an important note too – that we can for the first time have a comprehensive to that. I think we’ve all driven on roads that everything’s smooth, everything’s going fine, and then for a mile you’re on potholes. And so I think having a really regional approach to that so that we’re planning together, so that we’re working on those roads together … from a local perspective, that’s one of the big things where you can see some efficiencies, too – not doing it in patchwork fashion but really having a plan and following through and making sure our infrastructure – that we all travel across no matter what municipality we may live in – [can be counted on] to get to work and get around.

Under the current proposal, if it goes exactly as planned, we would wind up with three county-elected officials being in charge of the operation – the county prosecutor, county assessor and county executive. Is there a chance that this vote could turn on personalities, and the city voters might say, “Hey, we voted for these people and now they’re gone – they’ve evaporated.”

Leipholtz: One of the things we always tell people is thinking in two- and three-year increments is kind of what got us into this in the first place. And with everybody there’s going to be people they voted for and supported and people that won over people they voted for and supported. And so really what this is about is getting to the right structure that we need for a region, and I think that’s a question we get, but the reason for some of this continuity and stability is so that [we] don’t just throw up a new government … overnight. And it takes a number of years to really equalize these things and make sure it’s done right.

Johnson-Malone: I would also add into that picture that there will be a 33-member council that will be elected from smaller districts from throughout the region. And so it’s not just those three individuals – we’re trying to make sure that we’re creating a modern structure that is representative of the people that live in these communities.

There is a real concern about whether what's being done will really benefit African-Americans in our community. How can we trust that what's going on will be a fair process?
Johnson-Malone: To the point of representation, I think one of the things I would point out is that we know from recent history and from the way the conversation's gone recently that what we have right now is not working for the African-American community. And so when  the taskforce was set up to say, "OK, if wer're looking at a different structure, what is going to give us the best chance of making sure there is adequate representation in a new government alongside the resources to implement any changes that any particular community, particularly the African-American community given St. Louis' history, has to advance their causes?" And we think given the size of these districts and how they will likely be drawn by a nonpartisan expert during the transition, we think that there's going to be ample opportunity for representation in this new government.

Six of the question-and-answer exchanges with Kelly and Glantz were as follows:

Can you give a broad stroke of your objection to what Better Together has proposed?
Kelly: [We’re not wanting] a stop sign, [just] a different approach. And the reason … is that the [Municipal League] feels that it’s a fundamental right of the residents and voters of St. Louis and St. Louis County to determine what form of government they have – not necessarily the voters in Kansas City and Joplin and Springfield. 

Would you be in favor of the Better Together proposal if it did not involve the statewide vote?
Glantz: While I've read the report and there are some positive ideas and there are a number of very bright minds behind the plan, there's also enormous out-of-state financial support funding a pretty slick [public relations] campaign. I question why this needs to go to a vote of the entire state. I understand that to change the Missouri Constitution requires that vote. But I'm troubled by that. I think local control means that the city and county can make their own decisions. I’m more so concerned about the consolidation of police departments into one large metro police department … I don't understand how collapsing all these well-performing police departments, and there are quite a few, into one larger police department equates to better government and better police … To collapse all of that into one mega government doesn't seem to make sense, especially when it requires us to change the constitution of the state of Missouri.

Kelly: Also, Article Six of the [Missouri] Constitution establishes a process specifically for St. Louis city and county – for their residents – to decide on the governmental structure that they have and then be voted on by the residents of St. Louis city and county – that's the freeholders.

"I'll be the first to admit and recognize that disparities exist between the municipalities. Collaboration – collaboration with neighboring communities or creation of standards of excellence – can be enacted for all local government entities, not just the municipalities: school districts, the fire districts." -Creve Coeur Mayor Barry Glantz

How does the freeholders system work?
Kelly: Through the initiative petition process: Once we collect the signatures and they're certified, the county executive and mayor of St. Louis have 10 days to appoint their nine members. The governor then appoints one. Once they are appointed, within 30 days, the board of freeholders has to hold its first public meeting. At that point, the board actually has up to 12 months to develop a plan through public input and then schedule a special election – it can't be within 70 days before or after a general election – it has to be a special election. [It’s] for the voters of St. Louis city and county to make the ultimate decision.

Has this system been used before?
Kelly: [Yes], we used it to form Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District (MSD) back in the 1950s.

Do you concede that some form of consolidation should be taking place in this region? 
Glantz: Absolutely. I'll be the first to admit and recognize that disparities exist between the municipalities. Collaboration – collaboration with neighboring communities or creation of standards of excellence – can be enacted for all local government entities, not just the municipalities: school districts, the fire districts. There are a number of entities that the Better Together proposal is not yet addressing. Overarching, I think we can improve our region – but we can do that locally.

How would you propose that it work? [By] the city becoming a part of the county, another municipality or what?
Glantz: I actually think our municipal structure as it exists makes us a very unique community. I think people identify with the communities that they live in, and I think they like the communities that they live in. One of the reasons that a number of these communities came into existence is because they didn't feel they were getting the proper representation from a larger governmental entity. I believe that government that's closest to the people is the best form of government. And again, I think [we need] collaboration [between municipalities].

Kelly: If you look at the Better Together plan and read through it again, it's very vague, but really, it's not a new form of government. They're actually taking the existing St. Louis city government and overlaying that all over St. Louis city and county, and then that government then would control the entire area. I think we should have learned something from the St. Louis city government [that] with too many aldermen, it's very hard to have a consensus when you have that large of a body.

Read the article and listen to the interviews at St. Louis Public Radio.