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Once a major American city, the Gateway to the West struggles to redefine itself. June 17, 2019
Cities
Economy, finance, and budgets
Politics and law

Better Together, a drive to consolidate the governments of St. Louis County and its towns with the city of St. Louis, was over almost before it started. Following political blowback and the indictment of the St. Louis County executive who would have run the merged government, backers withdrew the proposal. But the problems that prompted it—regional demographic and economic malaise, fiscal distress, and segregation—aren’t going away. Attempts to shake up the region’s governance are likely to continue.

St. Louis is a rare “independent city”—not located within a county, that is, but existing as its own separate entity. Baltimore and some cities in Virginia are also organized this way, but few others. St. Louis was once part of St. Louis County. In 1876, however, city officials, unhappy with the county government, managed to push through a secession in which a newly enlarged city was carved away from the county. Practically speaking, the independent city of St. Louis was equivalent to a combined city-county government. In 1950, its peak population year, St. Louis was the eighth-largest city in the United States, with a population of 856,796, which even today would make it our 18th-largest municipality—bigger than Seattle, Denver, or Boston. Its land area of 62 square miles exceeds those of San Francisco and the District of Columbia. For a long time, independent St. Louis thrived, and separation from the county looked like a smart move.

But after 1950, St. Louis fell into steep decline. Its population has shrunk to 302,838, a drop of 65 percent—worse than Detroit’s population loss. The region has stagnated, too; the population of the larger metro area fell slightly last year.

Once a major regional business center, St. Louis has seen a dramatic erosion of civic standing. Local giants like Anheuser-Busch, McDonnell-Douglas, and Ralston Purina were bought out and reduced their local presence. TWA was acquired by American Airlines, which eliminated its hub in St. Louis. Southwestern Bell (now part of a reassembled AT&T) moved to Texas. As Brian Feldman documented in Washington Monthly, St. Louis once had a thriving professional-services industry in sectors such as advertising that served national clients; today, its services firms mostly have local clients. True, St. Louis retains several Fortune 500 companies and a large financial-services industry base, boasts an elite private school in Washington University, and remains a center of plant sciences, as well as being part of a major region of almost 3 million people, with significant economic activity and serious cultural assets—and the St. Louis Blues hockey team just won the Stanley Cup for the first time. Nonetheless, the city is clearly much less prominent than during its postwar heyday.

Regional stagnation has exposed many other civic issues, such as heavy segregation and jurisdictional fragmentation. St. Louis County is dotted with 91 municipalities, most very small, and many fiscally distressed. A number have turned to abusive ticketing practices to raise funds. The county’s problems blew up in Ferguson in 2014, where the police shooting of Michael Brown led to weeks of unrest. While state and federal investigations found the shooting justified, the resulting attention revealed many serious problems with how St. Louis suburbs were conducting business.

Many observers believe that reorganizing local government is necessary. Some have advocated that the city of St. Louis rejoin the county and become an ordinary city again. Others argue for a full consolidation of government between the city and county, pointing to merged city-county governments like Nashville and Indianapolis as positive examples. Urban planners have long viewed regionalized government, including city-county mergers, as a holy grail of good governance.

Better Together, a plan created by local leaders and heavily funded by local billionaire Rex Sinquefield, would have recombined St. Louis city and county and merged their governments. The existing St. Louis municipalities would have continued to exist as “municipal districts” but would lose authority over police, courts, roads, and economic development, as well as chunks of their revenue streams. Fire and school districts would stay independent. The plan was touted as a money-saver that would generate significant efficiencies, allowing the elimination of the local earnings tax, a long-time Sinquefield priority. Backers planned to implement the merger through a citizen-initiated amendment of the Missouri state constitution, to be voted on statewide.

Many aspects of this plan, which directly targeted abusive municipal police and courts, were well designed. Knowing that any kind of government merger is always hugely controversial, the planners took a light hand with their changes, not attempting to abolish existing municipalities completely.

But problems abounded. The projected savings were almost certainly a mirage. Unlike in corporate mergers, in government combinations municipal employees rarely lose their jobs or take pay cuts. In fact, the opposite is more likely—that wages and benefits would increase. Indeed, backers pledged in advance not to lay anyone off. The plan to implement a statewide vote also gave opponents an opening to criticize the plan as undemocratic. And complaints arose from some minority-group leaders, worried that their electoral clout might be reduced, as well as from some city advocates, fearing a takeover by the much larger suburban voting base. The county executive, in fact, was slated to be the transitional mayor. That proved the plan’s undoing, after he was indicted.

Good reasons exist to question a city-county merger for St. Louis. These reorganizations consume immense civic time and attention that could be devoted to other priorities. The merger wouldn’t save money. And unlike mergers in Indianapolis and Nashville, which happened more than 50 years ago, this plan would not combine an older city with growing suburbs, but rather, join an older city to suburbs that are themselves old and stagnant. To the extent that new suburban growth is occurring in St. Louis, it’s farther out, in places like St. Charles County.

Nevertheless, merger talk continues. Backers have already said that they plan to resurrect the idea. St. Louis clearly faces regional demographic and economic challenges as well as acute problems with its micro-suburbs in St. Louis County. While a merger would not be a silver bullet, it might disrupt the status quo in a way that opens new possibilities. Whatever it decides to do, St. Louis needs to do something.

Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

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