JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The Senate President Pro Tem has a few thoughts towards “fixing” the St. Louis region, and it might leave a bad taste in the mouths of more than a few.
In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio’s Jason Rosenbaum a few weeks back, Sen. Ron Richard, R-Joplin, suggested some changes to the area, particularly through the combining of the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County or merging municipalities.
“St. Louis keeps getting in the way of themselves,” Richard said. “They have a governance in St. Louis City that’s – I mean, they have an entrenched bureaucracy that keeps them from functioning in my mind. The county has all of these municipalities and these little bitty fiefdoms. Someday, guys like me from rural Missouri are going to say ‘enough is enough, you guys are out of money, keep passing taxes – I think that’s not in the best interest of Missouri, so we’re going to have to start merging municipalities, fire districts, police district public safety, merge county and city, sell Lambert Field, take the $2-3 billion and do infrastructure in the city.’
“But you gotta protect it because St. Louis will probably figure out a way to spend the money on a bunch of umbrellas and stuff, the way they have, with a history of money spending in the past. If it’s up to me, in my last year up here, we’re probably going to take a look at that. If St. Louis wants to thrive… the population is going south, the education system in the city is going south, the transportation and airport is going south. They continue doing the same things politically in the city as they’ve always done…I’m of a mind let’s change a little of those things, let’s shake things up.”
— Jason Rosenbaum (@jrosenbaum) May 15, 2017
But the idea of that kind of consolidation efforts has been met with mixed reactions. While some acknowledge that maybe a proverbial “pruning” might help, others call the idea a heavy-handed measure, saying it forces the consolidation efforts on the people.
Sen. Jill Schupp, D-St. Louis, says the idea of re-entry for the City of St. Louis could have a number of different effects. She says that she would like to see a dialogue started, but is concerned about it coming from the legislature.
“I just think we need to get the dialogue going in our communities because the effect of what we do can have ramifications statewide,” Schupp said. “But I really see this as a regional issue, and I think that the decision and the way that we go forward or do not go forward needs to come out of citizen involvement and education. I’m a little concerned about having this go to the legislature to make a decision before the areas have really determined what is in our best interest for the areas and the state as a whole.
“Most big cities that are successful are not as divided as we are,” Schupp continued. “But I want to remind you that we are so unique in so many other ways, because in St. Louis County with our 91 municipalities, we’re broken up in a lot of ways. I think that the hope when people talk about joining together is that the best parts of the city and the county come together, that there are some economic savings from not having different government functions within the county, municipalities, and St. Louis County and St. Louis City. The sharing of services – those are some ideas that have happened from municipality to municipality in the county as a way to save dollars, and I think that those kinds of advantages could occur.”
She also says that after a time, people might even forget that the two were ever divided and begin looking out for each other as a region.
Sen. Jacob Hummel agreed with Schupp, saying there’s a path to re-entering the county, as long as it’s done the correct way. He said he’s talked with Sen. Richard about the issue during the legislative session this past spring and says the idea is to get a conversation going rather than force the measure with the legislature.
“We talk a lot about St. Louis City merging with St. Louis County, but the fact is that St. Louis County has an even more fractured form of government than St. Louis City,” he said. “Some of these municipalities exist only on paper, and it doesn’t make any sense.”
He says that the goal should be to maintain the offices that do a good job and still maintain the level of services being offered while seeking a more fiscally-responsible way to conserve revenue. His hope is that by starting the conversation, it could lead to the usage of a task force or committee to investigate the best possible ways to make the merger.
Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Kirkwood, says that he’s against the idea of a city-county merger.
“I think bringing the city problems into the county is problematic,” he said. “What I’m concerned about is higher taxes for my constituents, or bringing on debt that the city might have. I’m not saying that a merger would guarantee that those taxes would be brought into the county, but I don’t want the county to be responsible for any of the debt that the city might have. But when it comes to consolidation of other governments in St. Louis County, like municipalities, fire districts, I think there’s some validity to that.”
He says that one of the issues would be for franchised businesses, as different rules and regulations would affect how they function.
One thing is clear, though. Each senator said they are open to discussion, even Koenig. He says that he’d have to see a benefit for his constituents, but is always open to having conversations and see if there’s any common ground.
However, the Missouri Constitution would require any proposal seeking to combine the city and county to be decided by city and county voters, and only those voters.
That’s not to say that lawmakers couldn’t try to put a city-county union proposal on the statewide ballot. In the end, it all depends on what the legislature tries – or doesn’t try – in the next legislative session.
Benjamin Peters is a reporter for the Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine, and also produces the #MoLeg Podcast. He joined the Missouri Times in 2016 after working as a sports editor and TV news producer in mid-Missouri. Benjamin is a graduate of Missouri State University in Springfield. To contact Benjamin, email email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @BenjaminDPeters.