Failure of Fragmentation: 115 Governments Cost St. Louisans Dearly

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Better Together, the group studying our municipal governments, in their Regional Comparison revealed that St. Louis is spending much more per capita than Indianapolis and Louisville. Between St. Louis City, St. Louis County, the 90 municipalities in St. Louis County and the 23 fire districts of St. Louis County (No Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD), Zoo Museum District (ZMD), Great Rivers Greenway (GRG), Bi-State Development (Metro), or school districts) each year we’re spending $590 more per capita than Indianapolis and $815 more than Louisville. So if we spent the same per capita as Indianapolis is we’d be spending $778M less and in the case of Louisville, $1.075B less.

In order to account for differences in the scope of the governments they left out St. Louis City’s Lambert Airport and water services and St. Louis County’s Spirit of St. Louis Airport. It’s doubtful there’s anything left out that can account for the huge difference in per capita spending. If there’s some other substantial difference in the roles of the governments being compared, please share.

The cost of living is almost the same in all three places. The poverty rate in Marion county is higher than St. Louis City and County, so we can’t blame that. Certainly there are legacy costs from the city losing 500,000 people. There is also the costs of all the infrastructure we’ve burdened ourselves with in order to spread out. While what happened here happened to many cities, the fragmentation of the region exacerbated the forces at work. These forces are still at work, now threatening St. Louis County in a big way. With an extraordinary amount of fragmentation, we’ve rendered ourselves house-poor, and like the frog in the pot slowly getting the temperature turned-up, we haven’t realized it. Keep this in mind the next time a tax increase is proposed.

Are we getting better services from our governments for all this extra money? If we are, it isn’t attracting people here, and the levels of service in Indianapolis and Louisville aren’t chasing people away. Since 1970 the population of Marion County (Indianapolis) has risen 14%. Since 2000 Jefferson County’s (Louisville) population has risen 9.1%. Since 1970 St. Louis City and County population has fallen 16.2% with the county almost stagnant and the city accounting for the losses.

A variety of local government options and the small town feel with big city amenities are cited as selling points for the St. Louis region. It isn’t getting the job done, and it’s coming at a high cost to boot. In surveys citizens rate highly their satisfaction in the services delivered, but we should ask- can we get the same level of service for less cost?

For the cost of fragmentation we could build a Metrolink extension every year. We could fund the Federally-mandated MSD improvements in short order. We could fund any number of services and small improvements in neighborhoods that would help raise our quality of life, our property values, and strengthen our communities. We could each have a few hundred more dollars in our pockets every year (much more for most of us than the income tax cut passed last session).

It’s no mystery why they picked Indianapolis and Louisville. Indianapolis formed UNIGOV in 1970 merging the city, Marion County, and most of the municipalities of the county (A Super Mega Merger as defined by the Post Dispatch). In 2003 Louisville merged the city with Jefferson County while the other municipalities endured (Mega Merger).

Looking at present spending is a snapshot. How it changed over time and before and after their respective reforms is important to look at too. The answer to whether big consolidations reduce spending in the literature is “sometimes.” Savings in one area could be shifted to other priorities so it looks like there’s no net benefit, for example. Or the dividends come over the long term as the curve is bent, a hard thing to prove though (What would Indy and Marion County be spending today if they hadn’t done UNIGOV?). Still the dramatic difference between St. Louis and the others indicates a problem that we should get to the bottom of.

The rub is achieving substantial savings through reforming our local government structure. Would it take the Super Mega Merger or many smaller changes?

The Federal Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental
Relations concluded that per capita costs generally fall for municipalities with populations up to 25,000, remain fairly constant for those up to 250,000, but then rise significantly (ACIR, 1987). Is Municipal Consolidation the Answer? (Municipal Research News Summer 2003)

St. Louis County has 82 municipalities under 25,000 people, so the biggest gains may be found there. Encouraging merging, disincorporation, sharing more services among towns, and combining one aspect or another for the whole city and county, like one health department, could be the best path.

There’s no doubt, in addition to being dysfunctional, the status quo is also coming at a high cost. Hopefully in the forthcoming studies form Better Together we’ll find out where the money is going and thus be better informed on what to do about it. We need to continue to examine our governmental structure and consider how to get more for our money. In an era of scarcity and rising needs, we simply can’t afford this wasteful system anymore.

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  • matimal

    but a direct assault on them will only bring a vicious defensiveness. They’ll have to dissolve bit by bit. Sharing of road repairs, then police, then fire, then school buses, then school food service, then…….

  • T-Leb

    I read this, and don’t seem to think it says anything other than what people already know/feel about government. Government admits of waste… one person’s waste is another’s child’s school or more frequent trash collection or better paved road.

    • Alex Ihnen

      Yes, but I don’t know that St. Louis can make the argument of having better schools, more frequent trash collection, or better paved roads than either Indianapolis or Louisville – which is the point.

      • T-Leb

        There are plenty-o-people in the StL region that think their schools (Rockwood ect) and their trash pick up and roads are great. Typically places with higher taxes for schools and annual subdivision fees.

  • dempster holland

    fTwo points:
    First, the study itself should have identified why the substantial disparity in costs
    exists. Are some costs in the other cities assumed by the state or some other taxing
    districts? If not, what does cause the difference? To answer, once must compare
    the actual budget numbers
    2/ In judging population gain/loss, St charles county should be included. It is
    basically an extension of west and north st Louis county. If it is included, then there
    is a slight population gain or st louis city/county/st charles county

    • rgbose

      1. I hope they do some more comparisons in a more fine-grained way too. They left the airports in the STL numbers in order to better compare. I just can’t see $100Ms being accounted for by other differences.

      2. Sure it depends on how you draw the box. Including St. Charles shows a 1.6% increase in population since 1970. The counties around Marion (Indy) have seen plenty of growth too. I could spin that into saying because Indy is less fragmented, it’s central city has been healthier thus contributing to growth in its collar counties, whereas here the growth of the collar counties has come in a greater proportion from losses in St. Louis City and County. In other words Indy has had more new arrivals; whereas we are spreading out.

  • Bear

    I’m just tired of all of the different police departments in the county.

  • A.J. Wilkes

    The city of St. Louis could “win” this game of spreading out by getting away from a property tax and going to a land value capture tax. There would be no taxing of building improvement so current residents would not have to worry about be “gentrified” out of their neighborhoods, denser neighborhoods would be favored from an average cost standpoint, and government services would be paid for by their users in an proportionate and equitable manner. Density will be viability moving into the future.

  • Presbyterian

    I agree that we have to start talking about consolidating services … and then some. We’re funding the administrative overhead for a hundred police departments, a hundred city halls, etc. That’s a lot of bureaucracy to pay for. An area need not lose its identity to trim the fat. Brooklyn, NY didn’t cease being Brooklyn when it joined with Manhattan, Bronx and Queens to form NYC.

  • John R

    Unigov is far-fetched for our region; including more realistic regions would be helpful and lend itself to the notion that no particular outcome is being suggested by Better Together.
    So I believe it would be helpful to include Pittsburgh/Allegheny County in this study. That way you would have an example of a comparable region that has a large number of local governments…. the only difference is that Pittsburgh is part of the County, which is a much more likely outcome than Unigov. I’d also suggest a peer region that would better model the outcome of STL City rejoining (but not merging with) STL County while also seeing significant consolidation within the existing County… i.e. a large County featuring a relatively small primary city and relatively few suburban entities. Cincinnati/Hamilton County comes to mind as a possibility.

    • Alex Ihnen

      Thanks for the comment. I think both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are more analogous to STL than Indy and Louisville. It’s good to know the extent to which local governments and services can be combined, but it would be great to know how much PGH and CIN pay for services.

    • kjohnson04

      John, I think Unigov, while not perfect is a great jump-start to getting St. Louis on the road to recovery from local government incompetence and waste. It should come as no surprise that our peer cities (Louisville, Nashville, & Indianapolis) are doing better. Looking farther afield, modern Toronto is a great example of a needed consolidation being done by the legislature. Six formerly competing municipalities are joined and driving a growing region.

  • onecity

    The LURM! Land of Unnecessary and Redundant Municipalities. Welcome to LURMipolitan Saint Louis County! LURM 4-eva! Speed-trap-funded incompetence and nepotism, here I come!

    • onecity

      Sorry, I know that contributes nothing constructive, but I couldn’t resist…

  • kjohnson04

    We need to back away from incremental change on this issue. St. Louis has always been about fixing things with a special taxing district, while never eliminating the underlying problem. We have too many governments in St. Louis. Period. City entry in to the county doesn’t solve the problem; that just saddles city tax payers with the costs of conservatively about 70 local governments that are duplicitous.

    We need to go big and rip the band-aid off and abolish non-home rule cities in St. Louis County; merge the fire departments into a Countywide FD, the same with Police departments, and then in turn merge them with MPD and STLFD. Harmonize the pensions and move on. County offices should be merged with their city county counterparts, and then we could get about the business of attracting people to a unified St. Louis, where the money currently being wasted on administration could be spent on mass transit and other worthwhile causes.

    We don’t have the time to do things slowly. That’s what got us in this mess.

  • btownmoon

    Speaking of slowly, Indy consolidated into UniGov in 1970 and only recently have 5 of the 8 township fire departments agreed to be absorbed into the much larger Indianapolis Fire Dept. That’s 40 years. And one could argue that state property tax caps implemented at about the same time are largely responsible..