STL Post-Dispatch: Backers of a St. Louis city-county merger make their case, but not without critics

FRONTENAC • Supporters of unifying St. Louis and St. Louis County made their case Tuesday night for the economic and social benefits they say a merger could bring, but a vocal critic cast doubt on their claims and motives.

In a panel discussion moderated by state Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, at Frontenac City Hall, two representatives of the pro-merger group Better Together, Marius Johnson-Malone and Jeff Rainford, offered their views on how the union might increase the region’s population and expand job growth.

They were joined on the panel by E. Terrence Jones, a professor emeritus in the political science department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and Pat Kelly, executive director of the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis. 

“I’m afraid for the future of our metropolitan area,” said Rainford, who once served as chief of staff to then-St. Louis Mayor Frances Slay and is now a political consultant.

“We’re falling behind,” he told the room of about 100 people.

St. Louis city and county, which consists of 90 municipalities, split in what is known as “The Great Divorce” in 1876. There have been efforts to undo the split since, with Better Together formed in 2013 to look at the issue.

Rainford said that because of its many factions, the St. Louis region is “losing the competition for talent” to cities such as Denver; Louisville, Ky.; Indianapolis and Austin, Texas, where he said better quality of life, jobs and transportation are attracting young people. Rainford named discriminatory housing practices as one reason for division in the region during the panel Tuesday.

Rainford dismissed notions that unification is an attempt to burden the county with the city’s debt, eliminate municipalities and their leaders, or dilute the governing power of county Republicans through an influx of city Democratic voters.

“If this ever happens, the county will be the governing authority,” Rainford said.

He said Better Together does not yet have a proposal for reunification but is gathering information for one.

The possibility of reunification has gained support in recent months from St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger. In June, they endorsed a report showing millions of dollars a year in waste from inefficiency due to the city-county division and they announced a task force to create a proposal to change that.

Schupp said that despite concerns that state lawmakers might put a merger vote on a statewide ballot, no such proposals are in play in the state legislature at the moment.

Merger opponents say they worry that the county’s bond rating could drop and its crime statistics rise if it reunited with the city. 

Ellisville Mayor Adam Paul has been a vocal opponent of the state deciding what should happen between the city and county and has championed resolutions distancing his city from a merger.

At Tuesday’s event, Paul’s rejection of certain comments by the Better Together representatives were audible. He said after the panel discussion that he believes the group uses data skewed to support its positions and that some of its backers stand to gain financially from a merger.

“If you give me a report that says we are 100 percent more efficient merging or combining any sort of sources, I will be 100 percent on board,” Paul said. “I think that’s the misconception. They make us look like we’re just wanting to protect our fiefdoms.”

 

St. Louis financier Rex Sinquefield has been a key supporter of Better Together. Johnson-Malone, Better Together’s deputy director of community-based studies, said the group also receives private donations from entities with “a lot of business interests.” But he said he believed attacking the group’s studies or funding is “a tactic used to scare people away from this issue.”

Through his work at UMSL, Jones presented the audience with ways he believes the city and county have effectively joined forces in the past and could do so in the future without consolidating.

He pointed to waste management through the Metropolitan Sewer District, public safety through the Regional Justice Information System and cultural institutions through the Regional Arts Commission and zoo-museum district.

Jones suggested other areas for collaboration could be in public health and airport planning.

“Merger distracts from what we do well … incremental regionalism,” Jones said.

Better Together is holding several town hall meetings to further discuss reunification:

• 7 p.m. Monday at Sheet Metal Workers’ Local 36, 2319 Chouteau Avenue in St. Louis.

• 7 p.m. Oct. 12 at The Lodge Des Peres, 1050 Des Peres Road in Des Peres.

• 7 p.m. Oct. 18 at Greater St. Mark Family Church, 9950 Glen Owen Drive in North County.

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