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Poll, What Does”Merge the City & County” Mean to You?

April 12, 2009 St. Louis County, STL Region, Weekly Poll 27 Comments

The City of St. Louis was located in St. Louis County until 1876.  St. Louis, not Clayton, was the county seat.  That year the city became its own City-County, or “independent city.”

Prior to 1877, St. Louis County encompassed the City of St. Louis plus all other areas within the county boundaries including such towns as Kirkwood and Florissant. During that time, the county seat was the City of St. Louis. Often called the “Great Divorce,” the split occurred after the citizens of St. Louis County (that included both city and county) voted on the question of whether the City of St. Louis should separate from the county and become an independent city.

The vote took place 22 Aug 1876, and the initial count indicated that the separation question had failed by just over 100 votes. Supporters of separation then brought charges, including fraud, and a recount was ordered. The recount took four months so it was late 1876 before it was determined that the vote for separation had passed.  (Source)

There have been numerous attempts since 1876 to reverse this vote.  All have failed.  This “independent city”  arrangement is part of the Missouri constitution so any change becomes a statewide issue.

Today you will still hear people say we need to “merge” the city & county.  OK, what does that mean?

The landscape is very different today than it was in the late 19th Century.  Does merge mean expand the county boundaries to include the city — making the City of St. Louis a city among the 90+ other municipalities in St. Louis County?  Would Clayton remain the county seat?  That is more rejoin than merge in my view.

Merge would be a bigger task of creating a consolidated government — eliminating most or all of the 90+ municipalities and having one big city-county governement.  If we went this route I think all would agree the resulting entity would be named St. Louis.  But where would the government body be located?  Like other regions that have actually done this, existing buildings throughout the region would be incorporated into the new government structure.

I don’t think for a moment either one will ever happen but it is interesting to ponder.  I’m not neccesarily an advocate of changing the city-county relationship.  I am interested in consolidating the 90+ cuonty municipalities down to less than 10.  Same for school districts, fire districts and such. The St. Louis region

This week’s poll tackles this subject.  So take the poll on the upper right of the main pageand add your thoughts below on how you’d like to see our local governments restructured or perhaps left as is.

  • Jimmy Z

    My old home town, Louisville, KY, is the most recent to do it. As near as I can tell, the biggest change is that they can claim to be a bigger city – it’s had no impact on their SMSA standing and it’s had little impact on how services are delivered to constituents, but it helps in chasing federal grants and in attracting some new industries. I’m guessing, however, that while there have been some savings through the elimination of some redundancies on the buracracy side, it’s probably less than 5%, and will likely be insignificant in future years. The real challenge is balancing the city’s history and expectations for a higher level of service with the county’s expectation that they should be receiving the same level of services by accepting the liabilities of the city.

    Locally, I agree, the odds of much changing are pretty slim – the lure of local “power” is hard to give up, even if it means saving money and bringing more efficiency. One observation I’d like to add is that, in addition to the county’s 90+ municipalities, we in the city have, in effect, 26 unique and independent governmental units in our ward system, along with Metro and the airport, bringing the real total of political entities with a vested interest in their own self-preservation to something approaching 200! The best we can hope for is more consolidation of service delivery, along the lines of what we’ve seen with MSD and the consolidation of some fire districts.

  • les

    Can somebody actually name the benefits of combining the city and county…under any arrangement. Perhaps some small reduction of the size of government, but no other obvious benefits. The city may actually be better positioned for growth in the future with a more sustainable and equitable revenue source…the earning tax. The primary revenue source in communities in St. Louis County is sales tax, which is proving to be very volatile and is not growing.


    [slp --- Agreed. In the long run this may prove to be a good thing for the city. While the region has sprawled, the city has remained compact.]

  • Jimmy Z

    The earnings tax is a MAJOR disincentive when it comes to attracting new business to the city. It may be “sustainable and equitable”, but many decision makers / business owners choose to locate / stay in the county, or beyond, simply because they detest seeing another full percent of their hard-earned, and large personal, paychecks going to a government entity, when there are multiple, quality alternatives that charge zero! Merger would likely “solve” that problem (either all in or all out), but, for the present, it’s a bigger negative than a positive for the city. And yes, it is more predicatble – it continues to erode as our local economy stagnates at a predictale rate! (I agree, too, that the chasing of sales taxes in many suburban communities has gotten way out of hand and the fallout is happening and it ain’t pretty.)

  • http://stlcitytalk.blogspot.com/ mark groth

    “Can somebody actually name the benefits of combining the city and county…under any arrangement. Perhaps some small reduction of the size of government, but no other obvious benefits.”

    Solidarity. Being a team. No more us vs. them. Tax base increases, a more diverse political system and electorate. Maybe a ligit 2 party system? I think it would make strides toward becoming a unified region, with less parochialism. But, like Steve, I don’t think it’s going to ever happen…unless the city is leveled by an earthquake, fire, tornado, etc. and the state & Feds have to step in and change things.

  • http://www.buildingplace.net Building Place

    The plethora of small cities in St. Louis County is confusing to new visitors, and creates nightmares for transportation planning and coordination of local land use policies and regulations. The borders often seem completely arbitrary, mostly because they were drawn at a time when it was a half-day’s ride on a horse between settlements. Now, Overland, St. Ann, et. al. have long since grown together into a suburban agglomeration.

    However, I would not recommend consolidating all of these communities into one giant St. Louis. Local control is important, because a “local” government is more responsive to the needs and preferences of its residents. Governing Overland from downtown St. Louis would mean that Overland would likely experience a far less responsive government, and its residents would have far less influence on their elected officials.

    I see St. Louis as functioning best in its “independent” role, but there are opportunities to consolidate some St. Louis County municipalities together. Merging two or three small cities into one more substantial city would increase that community’s influence at the state level, and may result in cost savings overall. However, this option would require both state political pressure and state incentives to make it happen….

    The Province of Ontario, Canada was fairly successful in consolidating local governments a few years ago, but not without a great deal of pain for all concerned.

  • Tim E

    On a smaller scale I would argue that some muncipilaties should start merging for their own sake. Some good combinations in my mind would be Shrewsbury/Malborough (if I spelled that right) and maybe Afton, Richmond Heights/Brentwood, Webster Groves/Rock Hill, etc. The north side could use a few combinations going forward, especially after the airport expansion and North Park development has signifcantly changed the landscape. Just not familiar enough with North County to state any reasonable combinations.

    As far as city/county. I think their can be some combination of services without a loss of structure. I would love to see the parks department combine under one Mantra (make Forest Park the location for the main office!!). Same could be said for social services (center it on Clayton).

  • john m

    I must admit that I lean one way on the issue and have for as long as I can remember. That leaning predicates me to have one particular outcome to the question posed. However I am able to think that there are possibilities to this question outside of a full UNIGOV implementation.

    I cannot escape my interpretation that a unified region is far superior to a county seeing the city as separate both in function, location and effect. This has done more harm to not only the outside impression, but the views of those living next to its borders. This is just plain dysfunctional. If those residing outside its borders but still within the region see the cities woes as disconnected from their own they are kidding themselves.

    These divided realties we live in are not without financial consequence. St. Louis is under performing in the Midwestern cities in todays current climate. Our unemployment exceeds that of national average.

    It is my predisposition to think that the city/county citizens must realize that we are all interconnected and we are in competition with other regions. To continue the poor planning and infighting experienced from local areas within the same region is not only counterproductive but is bad for all of us.

    While we may not have a UNIGOV to solve all that faces us, it is just as ridiculous to me to hold onto the separation if it no longer makes sense to do so in an increasingly competitive world. A decision made back in 1876 should not keep us from looking at what challenges us and to make decisions on what would bring better opportunity for all in the region.

    While we are no doubt a community of neighborhoods, those neighborhoods might be ill-equipped to govern themselves as an interconnected whole. You may be the boss of your house, but come Monday you will likely report to another boss to bring home the necessary funds in maintaining the family. The same is true for the region. Even the self-employed have a boss.

    At the end of the day, I see many encouraging cooperative partnerships that exist without the full marriage of equals. But the question still remains for very good reason, and still with another question; Would we be stronger for it? I think yes.

  • john

    Consolidation sounds good but rarely works as designed. Sharing services exist between Clayton, Brentwood, Richmond Heights on various services. Get this: a rental neighbor calls because s “burning odor” is detected. Four fire trucks, three ambulances and two Fire Captain SUVs show up. The extension cord used is unplugged after all these guys drive with the sirens blowing, gas burning, time wasted solution. The EMS workers in each municipality wanted to fill their books with “meaningful” work load stories to prove “how needed” they are!

    Bottom Line: Costs higher and so will taxes be soon.
    - -
    Clayton-RichHeights couldn’t agree on a merger as a stated objective was not to eliminate one job. This meant that 70% of the costs were excluded from efficiency issues. Welcome to the Lou region! The joke became “we need two mayors, two fire cheifs, two police chiefs, two city managers… how government works here, aren’t we lucky”!
    - -
    Back to the question re. how would a merger look: Not good as local attitudes favor inefficiencies over a prosperous region and the distrust of government makes our municipal government leaders more powerful on a local scale. Division Rules in the Lou and MoDOT-Metro takes full advantage of this lack of power. That is why Clayton’s government wanted the balance to change. GM fought cost cutting for years too until it was too late.

  • dumb me

    I will support some form of consolidation with STL County as soon as STL County comes knocking on the door of STL City. For fifty years, many County residents have hung the Great Divorce over the city’s head. Now, the worm has begun to turn, and the city is gaining in stature.

    Reconciliation needs to be a two way street. The City will get nowhere pushing for a merger. It needs to start with the County. When the County realizes it needs the city to be strong, then the City should be ready to talk about consolidation.

  • http://www.thedivepoets.com jeff

    I absolutely think that there should be fewer municipalities in the region, but when I hear the term “merge the city and county”, I simply think of putting the city back into the county and reducing the redundant jobs and, ideally, moving the county seat back to the city of St. Louis.

    Reducing the overall number of municipalities is a broader effort, in my mind.

  • http://bopparchitecture.com Dustin Bopp

    I remember a map from the early eighties that proposed bringing the city into the county and consolidating the county into just a handful of municipalities. I can’t remember if it was being pushed by Schoemehl, Westphal or both but that is what I would like to see. Does anybody remember that plan, who formulated it, and have a copy of the map?

  • john

    Are you serious?: “When the County realizes it needs the city to be strong, then the City should be ready to talk”. The City has proven that it can’t handle a police force, a school district, can’t afford managing the Zoo, Science Center, etc. without help, continues to experience job losses, relocation of businesses, and the County should be managed for similar results? Remind me, what are the income-educational levels, population, wealth, etc. in the City versus the County? Wow…

  • dumb me

    Let’s see…John, the state, not the city controls the police department.

    The “city” does not control the SLPS, it is a separate entity under the Board of Education, for the time being, again, under state control.

    Don’t know what you’re talking about re. the Science Center and the Zoo, but just about everyone else considers them to be among the best in the nation, and guess what, a partnership effort between the City and County. Go figure.

    When you speak of job and population losses, better check carefully for the stats in STL County. The County is seeing losses and stagnation like the city did some 40-odd years ago.

    Comparing income and education levels in STL City vs. STL County is sort of a fools game. Sure, the county has higher numbers of educated and higher income folks – lower income people are concentrated in the city.

    However, it’s a double edge sword when you start trading negatives versus positives. Many of the regions most important assets are based in the city, including many of our region’s finest medical and educational facilities.

    The city needs to move forward on a strategy based on its strengths. It has many, and the region is beginning to recognize this.

    The scale between a city county consolidation. In the past, it would have appeared an out of weakness move solely to benefit the city. That’s no longer so much the case. Would the change convince residents of Chesterfield or Fenton to consider any form of merger with STL City? You ought to ask them.

  • Zach

    I voted neither. While I think the City should rejoin the county I don’t think the city needs to become the entire county. Some of the far western suburbs are so rural and suburban in character that they would conflict with the more urban city and eastern urban suburbs. Rather I’d like to see the city rejoin the county, and then over time see the city merge/annex some of the inner older suburbs as well as the largely unincorporated yet still well built up areas of south county. A key part of this process would be to phase out the 1% city income tax as more of the suburbs join the city. Another thing would be to give these areas a large degree of local control over some areas like land use and planning. In the end the cost saving as far as government and services would be enormous for the area. In addition, moving StL up the population rankings would be very helpful in marketing the area.

  • Joe

    Merge and create a borough system. We were going to have a borough system before. I think the idea should strongly be reconsidered so we can stop competing amongst ourselves. The common argument I hear is that the city and county already share a lot of services and revenue and that should be enough. I think noting that, a merger is the next logical step.

    Bring on the boroughs.

  • Zundo

    Does anyone have any hard facts to support their vote?

    Could we weigh the pros and cons of this issue?

  • Richard Pointer

    As a political scientist, this is a simple problem of collective action. Each town’s mayor, bureaucracy, and PD/FD/Services has the incentive not to want to merge together. If it was just a matter of county and city getting to negotiating this might be feasible.

    But with hundreds of fiefs and no mechanism of punishing freeriders (muni’s that don’t join the movement or cut/give up staff/resources) this is analogous to the United nations without a security council. It just won’t happen.

    The only thing I can think is that some exogenous shock could push Jefferson City to force rationalization upon the city and county (Katrina like earthquake? Touch wood). But barring that, I think the St. Louis region is broken by design (to barrow a phrase).

  • http://www.charlesedwardmilburn.com Charlie

    This is a subject dear to my heart. I’ve lived all over the region for all of my life. Years spent in the County and the City (and a couple in Illinois) give me a perspective, I think. I once again live in the City and am politically active. What I would like to see is the voters of the City change the City charter to remove the idea of boundaries. The City can be as large as it wants to be. If and when adjoining cities wish to be part of the City, all they would have to do is put it to their own voters. A simple majority and that city is now part of the larger City.

    I had this very same talk with my alderman, i.e. merging the City and County. While she wasn’t totally in favor of it, she wasn’t anti-merger, either. She gave a few reasons why it wouldn’t work (mayors and other pols in the surrounding cities wouldn’t want to give up their power, cities would now be called to neighborhoods losing prestige, conflicting city and county ordinances would require a total review and overhaul of laws and the judicial system) and I countered with my reasons why it would work (overall pride of the city, vastly reduced costs of police, fire and ambulance, better coverage of those preceding necessities, better general fiscal health of the region, a better school system, elimination of patronage). I am not one of those pessimistic people who think that this possible merger would result in a less efficient government. Just the opposite, for me.

    I think that if put before the voters, this idea would pass. I think most people see the value of consolidating the region and would go along with it. Those who aren’t proponents of the idea seem to be those who see the merger only in terms of losses, not gains. The truth might be somewhere in the middle, but wouldn’t this be a great chance to redesign our government…our area…and make a better place to live for ALL of us? I like a challenge.

  • http://www.charlesedwardmilburn.com Charlie

    Sorry for the bad clause….”cities would now be called to neighborhoods losing prestige”. I edited the sentence and missed a part. It should read…”cities would now be called neighborhoods thereby losing prestige.”

  • Dennis

    People here just don’t know how to think in terms of whats best for the entire region. Or maybe they just don’t want to.

  • Jimmy Z

    Another alternative could be subdividing the city into 4 or 5 smaller, more manageable parts, perhaps as a prelude to a merger with the county. West of Grand, the dividing lines could be Delmar and Manchester or Forest Park Parkway; east of Grand, the dividing line could be Forest Park Parkway/Market St. Would this come with an incredible amount of baggage, acrimony and resistance? YES! But the logistics of trying to make something like this “work” would be as “interesting” and “challenging” as trying to blend the existing city, as a whole, into the county . . .

  • Jimmy Z

    Even apparently-simple ways of streamlining government in Missouri appear to be hung up in the politics of protecting turf. Here, to renew the license plates on your car requires dealing with two separate entities, the tax collector and the license bureau. In Colorado, the two are combined – you get a postcard in the mail, both fees are itemized, you mail one check back for the total, and you’re done – your sticker arrives back in the mail in a few days. Efficiency in government usually means fewer government jobs. Most taxpayers are good with the concept; it’s the workers who would be eliminated and the politicians who would have fewer patronage positions to fill/bid out that are the major opponents, and, unfortunately, they’re much more engaged and vocal than most voters. Until the economy improves, significantly, and there are a lot more opportunities to find “good” jobs outside of government, efficiency will remain an elusive concept. That, or taxes will reach a tipping point, where voters will just say no to higher property and/or sales taxes, and the ONLY option for government will be more-efficient use of limited resources, either through reductions in existing services or by combining service delivery with their neighbors.

  • Joe

    St. Louis is one of the most municipally fractured regions in the country and what has it gotten us? We have towns of only a couple hundred people raising tax money to effectively pay a mayor and support staff to do nothing. As many have previously said the combination of these small cities in the county could free up a lot of money to redevote to the schools, infrastructure and/or fire/police.

    What I haven’t noticed in the comments is the effect that extreme localism has on the tax revenue stream. As others have said, the county communities are dependent on sales tax… so they do anything to lure developers to throw up “big box” development within their boundaries. Often the city will offers incentives in the form TIF bonds to help fund the creation of the project. As each small city competes for the same Lowes/Target/Schnucks the incentives become larger and larger and the cities long term tax revenue shrinks. A recent study of St. Louis TIF programs have shown that BILLIONS of dollars have been wasted on these projects. Instead of creating new economic growth… they simply shift developers around from site to site, using taxpayer money.

    By eliminating the number of governments and increasing their boundaries, there will be fewer competitors and less of a race to the bottom to attract the next strip mall to the city.

    Finally, I grew up in Indianapolis. Indianapolis had effectively developed just like St. Louis… a historic core, surrounded by small local govs. The state of Indiana realized the inefficiencies that were occuring and consolidated nearly every municipality in Marion County (containing Indianapolis) and created UNIGOV. This was not an overnight process and we are still mergering some police and fire departments (the schools were left alone). But what Indianapolis has been able to do is amass a large tax base, raising significant amounts of money to accomplish major projects quickly. Indianapolis has its problems (just like every other city), but by having one mayor, one city council and now one police chief… things get done quickly…. something business investment likes.

  • john m

    I was hoping someone would bring up the lessons of Indianapolis. While I have read a little, I was hoping we could draw on some lessons from there long time change that has been going on for 40 years, based on what I had read.

    I think if someone were truly interested in the possibilities, we could learn the most from Indianapolis. So if there are other lessons that could be drawn, such as how did the movement start? I personally would love to hear more about it.

  • Observe & Report

    One small step – The St. Louis County Police and the St. Louis Metropolitan (City) Police have a joint licensing program for security guards and couriers – a license is good in either jurisdiction, but not in other counties.

  • Zundo

    Dustin Bopp,

    Is this what you were thinking about?

    In 1987, there was an effort to consolidate St. Louis County to 37 municipalities. The Board of Freeholders Plan attempted to create cities that would contain tax bases large enough to support public services (Phares et al, 2007, 70). This, essentially, meant fewer citizens would have to rely on county provided services, causing more efficient and equal distribution of services. However, the legality of the plan was in question, because the Board of Freeholders did not include those who did not own property. The court ruled the Board violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution. As a result, the plan never made it to the voters. Any future groups were required to include qualified electors, not just property owners.

    There is a map in the book:
    St. Louis Plans: The Ideal and the Real St. Louis

  • http://bopparchitecture.com Dustin Bopp

    Somebody always knows. Thanks.

    Actually, I happen to even have that book though I haven’t read through it exhaustively.

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