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City-County reconciliation: Here they go again

In Commentary

6:46 am on Thu, 09.05.13

It was 9 a.m. in the morning on a fall day in October when the endless repetition campaign was initiated for the first time. After that, the effort subsequently caught on and spread like uncontrolled wildfire until it became a popular fad.

Enough, already: Redundancy sucks. The example above is muddled speech, which usually reflects muddled thought. Worse than false, it is stupid — though the sin can be forgiven if it is sung.

Johnny Cash “fell into a burning ring of fire” (is there another kind?) but we tolerate the linguistic transgression because it sounds good when he sings it, and the ear is easily seduced by pleasant noise.

And pleasant noise is what jukeboxes are built to provide.  Unfortunately, it is also what most current political dialog is made of — things that sound good but upon further review, really don’t make much sense.

Locally, one cause du jour involves somehow reuniting St. Louis city and county. The proposal has been dubbed “The Great Reconciliation” by the editorial staff of the Post-Dispatch.

Before exploring the alternatives for reconciliation, allow me to redundantly caution regular readers that I work at the city sheriff’s office, an agency that would be affected by the transition. For reasons that will become clear, I’m not particularly worried about the prospect.

One option is for the city to rejoin the county as its 91st — and largest — municipality. Despite spurious claims to the contrary, that maneuver would do nothing to improve the St. Louis crime rate or its population rank among the nation’s cities. We’d still have the same number of people and the same incidence of crime.

It would, however, move the so-called “county offices” of city government to the newly expanded county seat in Clayton. City taxpayers would send their real estate and personal property tax payments to the county at large rather than keep them downtown. County taxpayers would inherent the problems of homelessness, crime and welfare that many fled to the suburbs to avoid in the first place.

The change would, however, eliminate six independently elected officials in St. Louis. The newly streamlined city government would thus make it more convenient for monied interests to advance their pet projects because there’d be fewer politicians to be bought off.

A more intriguing alternative is to merge the city and county into one municipal entity. “Mega-St. Louis” would instantly become the nation’s eighth largest city, a ranking that would more accurately reflect the area’s actual population. Its crime rate would plummet because affluent suburbs where street crime is unheard of would be considered city neighborhoods.

Of course, that improvement would be nothing more than statistical legerdemain. A citizen’s chances of victimization would be unchanged: Crime-ridden districts would remain dangerous and garden communities would remain relatively safe. Ex-suburbanites would probably notice fewer cops on their streets, however, as patrol units from the mega-police force are siphoned from quiet areas to answer calls where demand is greatest.

Aside from an improved statistical profile, the usual justification offered for such a merger is the projected savings to be realized from economy of scale. Eliminate duplication of services, the theory goes, and the costs of operations are correspondingly reduced. To gauge these savings, I looked at the place where I work: the circuit courts of St. Louis.

Because the city is a county unto itself, it has its own judicial circuit, the 22nd. Counting juvenile and drug courts, it consists of 32 divisions that conduct more criminal trials annually than any circuit in the state. Should the city abandon its county functions, this operation would have to be absorbed by the 21st Judicial Circuit whose jurisdiction is St. Louis County.

The problem here is that it wouldn’t fit. The city dockets are already overcrowded, so the county judges couldn’t simply assume the additional caseload. Defendants would die of old age awaiting their day in court.

City judges couldn’t move to the county courthouse because there’s no room for them. You could hold court in broom closets and restrooms and there still wouldn’t be sufficient space. Nor could the county jail accommodate the prisoner population housed in city detention facilities.

You’d wind up with the same number of courthouses, jails, judges, clerks, deputies and janitors that we have at present but operating under the auspices of an exponentially expanded bureaucracy. This is progress?

Apparently, most people don’t think so. Polls indicate wide margins of both city and county residents prefer to remain un-reconciled with their neighboring communities.

Reformers hope to skirt that awkward fact by subjecting the proposal to a statewide vote. They would thus allow people in places like Joplin and Springfield to determine how the St. Louis area governs itself.

Interestingly, when proponents of the state ballot initiative tried to reorganize city government in a 2004 election, they claimed to be promoting “home rule.” Now they’re back, advancing the cause of home rule here by shifting the vote elsewhere. It seems even deception can become redundant.

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