Municipal group strikes back at consolidation advocates

  

ST. LOUIS – The war over St. Louis’ municipalities now has two sides, and the most recent contender has immediately gone on the offensive.

CitiesStrong, a group of current and former city administrators from across St. Louis County, released a study Monday refuting a 2014 study by Better Together, a rival agency that for the last two years has encouraged more centralized, efficient government in the notoriously municipal-laden county.

Last year, Better Together released a basic outline comparing the cost of government between St. Louis City and County and Indianapolis and the surrounding Marion County as well as both city’s respective municipalities and townships. It showed that St. Louis City and County spent $601.60 more per capita than Indianapolis, attributing much of that added cost to municipal budgets in Indianapolis being around $700 million cheaper.

However, CitiesStrong, in a study conducted by the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ Public Policy Research Center (PPRC), now contends that Better Together’s study holds little merit because it omitted key parts of budgets outside the direct purview of the Indianapolis’ city government. These “component units,” as the study calls them, include the Indianapolis Airport Authority, the Indianapolis Marion County Library Authority, the Indianapolis Public Transportation Commission as well as a few others. Each one garners its own revenues and expenditures separately from the city government.

“In the course of collecting and analyzing data for the PPRC case study it became apparent there were both discrepancies in the total cost of local government when the data were taken from a standardized source and gaps in the service areas accounted for in the regional comparison report,” the report reads.

In fact, the PPRC found a much different result after they accounted for those discrepancies.

“When the unaccounted for tax-supported local government activity of Unigov is added to the $1,132,778,622 used in the regional comparison report, the resulting total is $1,721,691,833,” it continues. “When this is divided by the 2013 Census estimated population for Marion County Indiana of 928,281, the result is a per capita calculation of $1,854.70 or $44.99 more than the per capita calculation for St. Louis reported in the regional comparison report.”

The study also seeks to take into account different metrics for the two cities’ financial solvency as well, such as gross metropolitan product, the role of the city’s own economic plan as well as its role within the national economy, and additional economic factors like unemployment, wage and job growth.

“The main thing it shows is that you have to look more extensively and it would indicate that there isn’t the kind of gap that Better Together originally reported,” Dr. Mark Tranel, the author of the PPRC study, stated. “I think it calls into question their methodology.”

Tranel added that he did not merely look at budget projections, but instead focused on the comprehensive annual financial report (CAFR), the money actually spent and not simply allotted over the fiscal year, when determining which figures to use.

However, Dave Leipholtz, the community-based study director for Better Together, alleges that their own study had a perfectly fair methodology. He noted that in the Better Together study, they left out certain costs that would cause St. Louis’ budget to skyrocket, including the costs for the Zoo and Museum district and the Spirit of St. Louis Airport along with a few others. The organization did this, Leipholtz says, to find the best “apples to apples” comparison between the two cities.

“I think it’s a matter of trying to drive up the costs of Indianapolis to make St. Louis look just as bad,” he said of the PPRC study. “It’s trying to put a spin on numbers that show inefficiencies in other regions.”

Leipoltz also said he and other members of Better Together met with Tranel in two hour-and-a-half meetings to answer questions he had about the Better Together study.

“We walked him through it,” Leipoltz says. “[In the study] he states he’s not quite sure why something was left out… To me, it’s just not possible that he didn’t understand why we did different things.”

Leipoltz also noted that he was not surprised a study commissioned by former municipal leaders would support findings that favored municipal government.

Bert Gates, a former mayor of Shrewsbury and current president of the CitiesStrong board of directors, believes the opposite side also plays certain cards and that advocates of a more consolidated city-county government would want to present figures that favor a more consolidated city-county.

“I kind of laugh when people say we’re protecting our fiefdom,” he says. “Everybody kind of points to [the 90-plus municipalities] as the source of all our ills in that community, and I don’t think that’s true… I’ve found we were much better to provide services than a larger community. Bigger isn’t necessarily always going to be cheaper.”

Gates does concede that not all municipalities necessarily look out for the people residing within them, but that for each of those, other communities provided strong services for their communities.

“I’m sure there’s some bad ones,” he says. “I don’t think any single community is perfect, but there’s a lot of good communities providing good services.”

Mostly, Gates simply wants municipalities to have a voice in the conversation when it comes to any possible redrawing of lines, borders or boundaries that may happen in the future.

“What we’re standing for is collaboration for all the parties and not someone dictating this is the way we’re going to do things,” he says. “We’re open to a lot of things.”