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Of devils and details: 8 potential obstacles to city-county reunion

In Region

6:53 am on Thu, 09.05.13

More than 100 years after the "Great Divorce," some people are apparently hearing wedding bells. The question of a remarriage between St. Louis and St. Louis County may be the regional debate that won't go away.

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Since the “Great Divorce,” there’s frequently been talk – but not much action – about reuniting the two. Recently again, the idea of the city “re-entering,” “merging” or “mega-merging” was brought up during the debate over fusing economic development agencies, and it was the subject of a recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial.

Of course, any discussion of reunification is dominated by the question of whether it should or should not happen. But how would it happen? Are there legal obstacles?

To be sure, there are far more than eight questions that come to mind for such a consequential decision. But for now, that may be a good place to start to spark a broader conversation about substantially altering St. Louis' regional government.

1. What is the proposal? The terms “re-entry” and “merger” may seem  interchangeable. But they often describe substantially different proposals.

“Re-entry” usually refers to the city becoming a municipality within St. Louis County. In theory, St. Louis would then function like any other city in St. Louis County, say Clayton or Chesterfield. Theoretically, if the city joined the county, it would dissolve its "county" offices, like recorder of deeds, treasurer or circuit attorney. It’s also possible that the county would take over some responsibilities related to transportation, public health and parks. That prospect has been a rallying point for both supporters and opponents.

Re-entry, though, is far different than a merger, or the “mega-nuclear option” described in the Post-Dispatch editorial. To be sure, a merger would also end the separation of the city and county, but it could – at least in theory – dissolve dozens of the county’s municipalities and create a singular government. Similar arrangements exist in Marion County-Indianapolis, Ind., and Louisville, Ky., among other places.

This may be the most important question, since it's the difference between adding to an existing governmental entity and potentially creating an entirely new governmental structure. 

2. Who would vote on the proposal? There is a procedure – albeit a complicated one -- within the Missouri Constitution for the city to re-enter the county. The bottom line is that voters in the county and the city would have the final say. 

The process in the Missouri Constitution is certainly complicated. But even if it got to the ballot, there’s a widespread assumption that any proposal – whether a mega-nuclear “merger” or re-entry as a municipality – would fail if only city and county residents voted. A statewide proposition could be easier to pass.

Some skeptics may ask whether residents of Bowling Green and Knob Noster should chime in on such a decision. And what happens if a statewide initiative passes, but fails in the city and the county? And even under a re-entry scenario, would altering the constitution spark unintended consequences of how the city governs itself?

It's worth noting that St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley is on record supporting only city and county voters deciding on any unification proposal.

3. Would the city keep its earnings tax? One of the political figures mentioned in the Post-Dispatch editorial – retired financier Rex Sinquefield – was a prime funder behind a 2010 initiative to force votes every five years on earnings taxes in Kansas City and St. Louis. 

If Sinquefield – one of the state’s most generous political donors – funds either a re-entry or merger initiative, would that proposal include getting rid of the earnings tax? Would an earnings tax be necessary under any scenario of combined government? And how would the future of that tax alter the political dynamics of getting an initiative passed -- especially since the tax is supported by some politically potent interest groups?

4. In the event of “re-entry,” would the county have to expand its council? At the moment, the St. Louis County Council has seven people to represent roughly 1 million people. That means each council district encompasses a little more than 142,000 St. Louis County residents.

If the city became a municipality within the county, that average would expand to over 188,000 residents a council member. That increase would be essentially equivalent to adding Chesterfield to each district. For comparison’s sake, the Jackson County Legislature – which governs a big part of Kansas City – has nine members to represent about 675,000 people.

If the council remained at seven members, would bigger districts make it harder for council members to be responsive?  And if the council does expand, how would that change how the council considers and deliberates on legislation?

5. How would any proposal alter the political dynamics of the region? This may be a side issue, but one that could determine the outcome of any proposal.

Adding the city to the county could make it extremely difficult for Republicans to win any countywide office or take over the St. Louis County Council. If Republicans stand no chance at winning the county executive’s office or taking over the county council, would that change how elected officials make decisions and calculate public support for ideas?

St. Louis University political science professor Ken Warren also said earlier this year that some African-American leaders in the city fear their political clout might be diluted in St. Louis County. Would a re-entry or merger make it tougher for African Americans from the city to win countywide offices?

6. If the city of St. Louis and all the municipalities that encompass St. Louis County simply became "St. Louis," how would this new entity be governed?

Let's assume for a moment that St. Louis and all the land mass that makes up St. Louis County became one, big municipality called "St. Louis." That's essentially the endgame of the "mega-nuclear merger." How would this new entity would be governed?

For instance: What sort of power would the executive leader --  or mayor? -- of this new "St. Louis" have? How much leeway would this leader have to structure departments, craft budgets and consider legislation? These are especially important points, given that the executive branch of "St. Louis" could be entrusted to arrange and monitor governmental departments infused with hundreds of millions of dollars.

Also: What would the legislative body of the new "St. Louis" look like? If the legislative entity is too small, would that affect constituent responsiveness? Would it be easier for well-connected “establishment” candidates to get elected? Would legislative districts encompass areas of the region with little commonality? And would districts reflect racial diversity? If a legislature is too large, would it be difficult to reach legislative consensus on contentious issues? Would the legislative body split along regional lines?

7. Could current municipalities opt out under "merger"? Several cities in the "UniGov" system in Indianapolis still have some autonomy. Would residents in Sunset Hills or Ballwin or Dellwood have the same option? And how much power would those municipalities have if they decide not to become part of the new "St. Louis?"

There's also the question of whether Missouri Legislature would have to act to make the above possibility feasible: After all, state law allows only villages and fourth-class cities to disincorporate and become part of a county. Would the legislature need to enact a new law to make the mass dissolution of St. Louis County municipalities possible? Would there also be a legislative role for consolidating fire protection districts or municipal police departments? 

8. Would current municipalities want to become part of a consolidated government? A completely separate question from whether municipalities can opt out of a merger is whether they would want to opt out. 

Could there be financial benefits to not taking part in a consolidated government? For instance, would Chesterfield be able to keep all of its sales tax revenue if it decided to opt out? 

In addition, some of St. Louis County's municipalities have fairly established histories and identities, like Florissant or Webster Groves. Would residents want to give up municipal government that they've accustomed to for decades?

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