The History and Possibilities of a St. Louis City-County Reunification

The mere mention of the St. Louis City, St. Louis County split, possible merger or re-joining elicits powerful responses in the St. Louis region. Joe provides an excellent overview of the history between St. Louis City and St. Louis County and why it's important to our future. Joe is a Junior at Christian Brothers College High School in St. Louis. This article is a paper written for an AP History and English course.  – Alex

On August 22nd, 1876, the citizens of Saint Louis decided that the city would secede from the county. That event was compared in 1978 by Howard F. Baer when he wrote, “This action was roughly the equivalent in economic consequence to England’s giving up the 13 colonies, only the city did it from choice, whereas Great Britain at least had the good sense to struggle, if but halfheartedly against the separation,” (252). Howard Baer’s quotation exemplifies the economic loss that the region has suffered for over a century now. Furthermore, this separation has caused much turmoil and anxiety throughout our region, thus the region has attempted several times over the past century to reunify the city and county. During his inaugural address, Mayor Francis Slay brought up the issue again. However this time, instead of proposing a full merger, Mayor Slay wants the city to be annexed by the county as another municipality. The need for our region to cooperate at a time like this could never be greater, as Saint Louis is at the crossroads of a rapidly changing global economy. To effectively boost economic development, save money, and make local government more efficient, the City of Saint Louis and Saint Louis County must reunite.
The idea for the city to secede the county began its conception in 1870 when several differences between the city and county caused a rift among the 310,000 urban dwellers and 27,000 rural citizens. As the differences between the city and county grew a Taxpayer’s League was formed in 1872 and its mission was to push for the separation of the city and the county. The issue started to take serious and legal form when Missouri approved a new state constitution in 1875. Included in the new constitution was a clause that set forth a plan for the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County to separate. This movement was largely pushed and endorsed by the city residents who felt that their tax money was being wasted in the county and that the city would not grow further west. Furthermore, the city felt it could exist without the county. Finally, after years of debate, St. Louisans went to the polls on August 22nd, 1876 to decide whether the County should split into two, the independent City of St. Louis and St. Louis County. The final outcome was released by the Missouri Supreme Court on April 26th, 1877 when it was announced that the city would secede the county. In the ensuing months, the city adopted a new charter and the boundaries were drawn. Initially the city boundary was to be set at Grand Boulevard; however the city boundary was extended to Skinker Boulevard to include the newly created Forest Park. In doing so, the city’s land mass was more than tripled and included O’Fallon Park in the north, and Carondelet Park in the south.

The city and the county soon began to resent their decision to split, when“Changed conditions, due chiefly to improved transportation facilities, led to a reversal in sentiment in both sections,” (Loeb). This improvement in transportation is due to the fact that in 1891, Missouri authorized St. Louis to construct boulevards, like Delmar and Page. This aided in the westward growth of the city beyond the border at Skiner. As the metropolitan area expanded, the city began to fall in the ranks of population. In fact, St. Louis was once the 4th largest city in the nation, just behind New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia according to the 1900 census.

Finally, after much debate and resentment over the decision to split,

An amendment to the constitution, adopted in 1924, authorized the creation of a board of freeholders, consisting of nine members each from the city and the county, to draft one of three alternative plans to be adopted at separate elections by a majority vote each in city and county. (Loeb).

Despite the progress made to form a significant plan to resolve this problem, the board remained divided for nearly a year about which plan to adopt. Finally, one of the county’s representatives supported the city’s plan so that the goal of reunification could be achieved.

The board adopted a plan to consolidate the city and county as one municipality. However, the stark differences between the city and the county were clearly evident when the time to vote came in 1926. Voter turnout was low in the city but high in the county. The city approved the plan but the county rejected it, causing its defeat. However, the county and city residents did agree that something must be done to confront this growing problem. Three years later, “Informal conferences were held, and the chambers of commerce of the city and county agreed, early in 1929, each to appoint thirteen members of a joint metropolitan development committee to consider the problem,” (Loeb). The joint metropolitan committee decided to appoint Professor Thomas H. Reed to study the entire metropolitan area and problems associated with the divided city. After more than half of a year of research, a 400 member group was appointed, divided among 13 committees, and studied Professor Reed’s findings.

After studying Professor Reed’s research, the group created a borough plan. Moreover, a large amount of the government organization and municipalities would remain intact but the legislature would be given power to amend this in the future. Furthermore, a government would be set up for the greater city, which would manage nearly everything. Also, a provision was made for one municipality to annex another. Finally, in May of 1930, the general plan was unveiled to adopt an amendment which would allow for the establishment of a new government of the city of Greater St. Louis. It was decided that the proposal would each be voted on by the county and the city. Despite the massive amount of research and time spent on the issue, the plan was defeated. After this resounding defeat, the issue of whether or not to reunify the city and county would not be approached again until 1950.

As the 1950s came, another Board of Freeholders was created and they formed a district plan, which was later defeated by the voters in 1959. The board then went back to the drawing boards and returned to the borough plan that was proposed in the 1930s. Yet again, it was defeated by the voters, possibly because suburbanization was sweeping the country. White citizens were leaving the city for life in the county and African-Americans were migrating from the south to the north, and populating the cities. These racial tensions most likely caused the plan to be defeated. Even though the Board of Freeholders failed again, they did make significant progress in 1962 with the establishment of the City-County Junior College District and in December of 1965, they created the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council.

While the debate about whether the city and county should merge vanished from public debate, municipalities started to consider merging with each other. In the 1970s the St. Louis County municipalities of Normandy and Birdell Hills merged and in 2000 and 2001, a push began to merge some or all of the St. Louis County cities of Clayton, Richmond Heights, Brentwood, and Maplewood. Progress was made with the formation of the East Central Dispatch Center. However, it only serves one of the cities that proposed to merge and two other cities in the county, Richmond Heights, Shrewsbury, and Webster Groves. Then in 2005, Clayton and Richmond Heights began considering merging. A town hall was held and,

a city merger specialist from the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., gave a presentation about the pros and cons of merging. Among other things, the specialist said that highly fragmented governments could be detrimental to the financial health of a region, something Corcoran said suggested that a merger would be better served by all three cities, (Beightel).

Once again though, the goal of merging the cities failed, yet they did make progress on the sharing of services. This time, Richmond Heights and Maplewood merged their park departments.

The reason why the merging of municipalities inside St. Louis County is so important to the larger issue of the reasons why the city and county need to reunite is because of the duplication of services, divided government, and failure to plan as a collective region for future economic growth. When St. Louis is divided into two counties and the one county, St. Louis County has 91 municipalities and other incorporated areas, the region as a whole fails because each municipality will consistently compete against each other for jobs, people, and money. Also, by having this many municipalities the region wastes valuable tax dollars on duplicating services that could otherwise be spent for other things. It is promising to see that municipalities like Clayton and Richmond Heights have considered merging because it shows that citizens are starting to realize that the local government in the St. Louis region is very inefficient and wasteful.

Recently, the idea of a merger between the city and county has resurfaced. It has already been almost 30 years since the last talk of the issue occurred, however this time could not be more important. In his inaugural speech, Mayor Slay said, “The city must reform its charter. The city, the inner suburbs, and outer suburbs must combine services. And I strongly believe, the we must begin to lay the groundwork for the city of St. Louis to enter St. Louis County,” (Editorial Board). What Mayor Slay is proposing here is that he wants the city to be annexed by the county as its 92nd municipality which he calls a re-joining. In an interview, Michael Allen, who is a supporter of the mayor’s plan said,

I favor the plan for the city to re-enter the county, because it allows the city to retain local autonomy and because it is the most politically feasible. I think that it is important that the city remain a municipality with its own legislative body and government. In other cities where full mergers have been accomplished, like Indianapolis, merger has had greater benefit to suburban political interests who can "out vote" urban interests in unified legislative bodies.

Mr. Allen clearly displays that merging and rejoining are two different terms that each have their own very different affects. He also shows how a full merger would be detrimental to the region in the long term and how a re-joining would be better when he says,

Again, full merger would take a lot of time. It could take 20 years and multiple votes. That sort of effort would consume civic leadership best directed to pressing issues like regional unemployment, expansion and funding of the Metro system, sprawl, small business growth and attracting new residents. City re-entry to the county, however, would be a faster, easier push and the benefits would make it worth the effort.

Of the numerous reasons why the city and county need to merge, the first is the duplication of services. When the 91 municipality county has “64 police agencies; 43 fire districts or fire departments and 26 emergency call centers,” (Editorial Board), each municipality wastes money because it pays for everything it’s city needs for their own emergency responders department. This means that the tax payer’s in each city have to pay for the stations, police cars, compensation, and all of the other fees that are required to run a public safety department. If the county and city had one emergency responders department, the region would be better prepared and more effective in fighting things like drugs and violence. Thus, the region would be safer as a whole.

Thankfully, on November 3rd, 2009, the residents of St. Louis County approved Proposition E-911. This proposition would increase tax revenue to replace old systems of communication. Furthermore, the sales tax will subsidize, “a lot of duplicative communications costs,” (Editorial Board). Despite the passage of Proposition E-911, we still have over 133 agencies that manage the public safety of St. Louis County. Also, with so many agencies, the commission that will oversee how the money is spent can only make the system efficient to a certain extent. It is through one police force, one fire department, and one emergency call center, that the most efficient both in terms of cost and effectiveness will be found. One example of an efficient unified city police department is the New York Police Department. NYPD operates as one organization and the police force is divided up among precincts that are based on geographic area. If the city and county would reunify under a borough plan, which has been discussed multiple times in the past, St. Louis could unify its police force under this type of system, considering the fact that New York City uses a borough form of government.

One part of the region that has been very inefficient, wasted money, and has failed to boost economic development is the region’s airports and river ports. Along with his discussion of merger, Slay also announced that he would want the regions airports and river ports to be consolidated under one port authority. To understand why we need one port authority, it is important to examine what the current makeup is of our region’s airports and ports. For example, Lambert International Airport is owned by the city, but is located in the county. Another airport in the region is the Spirit of St. Louis Airport which is owned by St. Louis County and is located in Chesterfield. With these two airports along with many others, the region’s ability to plan for long term growth is handicapped. Remember when Lambert was the 8th busiest airport in the nation and the hub of one of the largest airlines, TWA. Well the hub is gone, Lambert is much smaller, yet Lambert has recently opened a brand new runway that is barely used. By consolidating under one port authority, the region’s airports and riverports will be able to work more efficiently and save money at the same time, which can be used to boost economic development like the proposed Chinese Trade Hub.

Currently, U.S. officials are in talks with Chinese leaders to establish St. Louis as a trade hub. Mayor Slay recently said about the proposed Midwest-China Hub, “‘There’s a huge untapped market in the Midwest. It’s an opportunity for St. Louis to raise the level of our profile as a region internationally,’” (Volkmann). By establishing a single port authority to run all of our airports and river ports, long range growth, especially in the Midwest-China Hub proposal, will be easier to be planned and implemented. Alex Ihnen recently said in an interview that I conducted about the proposed hub,

predictability and opportunity drives business. The Chinese, or any other country or company is more likely to establish a presence in St. Louis if air, rail and river transportation is predictable. Obviously we're in an integrated global business climate. These different transportation modes must be integrated to serve business and the region. So, it only makes sense to me that there be one port authority.

By merging the city and county, and creating one port authority, the St. Louis region will be able to lure new economic developments like the Chinese Trade Hub, and plan more efficiently for long term economic growth in a global economy. Also, if St. Louis is able to land the Chinese Trade Hub, many other developing nations, like Brazil and India, will see Saint Louis as a perfect city to establish their own trade hubs, just like China did, and this will create thousands of new jobs and establish Saint Louis as a leader in international trade and commerce.

The split between the city and county has caused the region to be misrepresented and have a bad reputation around the world. For example David Linzee wrote in an article that appeared in St. Louis Magazine in 2007,

By reputation, he (Jerry Matacotta, a man who moved from New York City to St. Louis) says, ‘St. Louis is on the same level as Detroit: crime-ridden, racist, a city in decline. There’s nothing to do there, and the weather’s terrible.’ These faults – with the exception of the weather – are exaggerated by the city/county split.”

In 2007 St. Louis was the named most crime-ridden city in the United States, but what many people, who live in other parts of the country are unaware of is the fact that the figure is only based on the city’s population which does not include the nearly one million people that live in the county. Currently, St. Louis is ranked as the 53rd most populous city in the United States. With this ranking, businesses that are looking to move to Saint Louis will be turned away because they see St. Louis as too small of a region to carry out business competively. However, “A merged city and county would make St. Louis the nation’s seventh-largest city, just behind Phoenix,” (Bryant). With this ranking, St. Louis would now be much more appealing to businesses and would reflect the true St. Louis region as a whole, not one entity. It is important to make evident that all rankings are not detrimental to Saint Louis’ reputation. In fact, St. Louis is ranked the eleventh most literate city in the nation, and in 2007 St. Louis was ranked the sixth most literate city. Despite its positive reflection on St. Louis though, the ranking is skewed. The Central Connecticutt State University, who compiles the list each year, took the city’s population and measured it against the amount of libraries and bookstores that were found both in the city and the county. By merging the city and county, the region will be able to repair their damaged reputation and enhance it to reflect the true region.

The most important reason for the reunification between the city and county is because the region will be able to better compete for jobs outside of the region, not amongst the region. For example, the Centene Corporation was planning to build their new headquarters downtown in Ballpark Villlage. However, Centene decided to build their new headquarters in Clayton. Then on April 6th, the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported that “O’Fallon may offer an incentive package to Centene Corp. to build a 10,000 square-foot data storage center here,” (Currier). This project clearly shows that the problem of competition for jobs among municipalites, in this case three, extends far beyond the city and county. It affects our region as a whole, whether you live in the city, county, Metro East, or St. Charles. Recently, Mayor Slay’s Chief of Staff, Jeff Rainford said,

‘We need to stop using incentives to move jobs around the region and work jointly to bring jobs into the region,’ he said, adding that it’s not just the city and the county but other parts of the area, including Illinois, (Singer).

Furthermore, when our civic and business leaders use taxpayer money to keep businesses or lure others to their municipality from other cities, the taxpayer is at a loss because that money could be otherwise used to bring jobs from outside the region to St. Louis. Alex Ihnen clearly sums our region’s problem,

A merger should also allow St. Louis to stop competing against itself for jobs. When Clayton and downtown St. Louis City offer competing tax incentives to lure a law firm the whole region loses. The same is true when Richmond Heights offers Walmart millions of dollars to locate there instead of Brentwood solely for sales tax revenue. Richmond Heights may win, but the region loses.

If the city and county were to merge job growth would turn from a zero-sum situation to a net positive situation. Thus, St. Louis would not only experience healthy long term job growth but also a steady increase in population.

For St. Louis to boost economic development, save money, and become more efficient the city and county must reunify. For if the city and county do not reunify, St. Louis risks losing jobs and will be unable to compete in the global economy. Change is certainly a hard thing to accomplish and ask of citizens, but through the multiple agencies and groups that already work together, like the Metropolitan Sewer District, between the county and city, the Saint Louis region already has a strong foundation to build on. Maybe, with the passage of Proposition A, which will fund Metro, St. Louisans are slowly beginning to realize that to grow together, we must work together, even if it means one step at a time towards that goal that St. Louisans have been dreaming of for over 134 years now, the Reunification of St. Louis.

Works Cited

Allen, Michael. Personal interview. 08 Apr. 2010.

Baer, Howard F. Saint Louis To Me. St. Louis: Hawthorn Company, 1978. Print.

Beightel, Kara. "Marriage of Convenience?" West End Word. West End Word, 02 Feb. 2005. Web. 14 Apr. 2010. .

Bryant, Tim. "Slay Revives City-county Reunification Idea | Building Blocks | STLtoday." St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 27 Feb. 2010. Web. 15 Apr. 2010. .

Central Connecticut State University (CCSU). "Overall Rankings." Central Connecticut State University (CCSU). Central Connecticut State University (CCSU). Web. 30 Apr. 2010. .

Currier, Joel. "O?Fallon, Mo., Looking to Lure Centene Corp. | Chas Beat | STLtoday." Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, 06 Apr. 2010. Web. 14 Apr. 2010. .

Editorial Board. "The 92nd City: Slay Floats Idea of City Joining the County." Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, 27 Apr. 2009. Web. 29 Apr. 2010. .

Editorial Board. "Vote Yes on Prop 911." Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, 14 Oct. 2009. Web. 29 Apr. 2010.

Ihnen, Alex. Personal interview. 06 Apr. 2010.

Linzee, David. "To Merge or Not to Merge." St. Louis Magazine. St. Louis Magazine, Jan. 2007. Web. 15 Apr. 2010. .

Loeb, Isidor. "The Proposed Merger of St. Louis City and County." The American Political Science Review 24.3 (1930): 691-93. JSTOR. Web. 14 Apr. 2010. .

Singer, Dale. "St. Louis Beacon – Mayor Calls for City to Rejoin St. Louis County." St. Louis Beacon. St. Louis Beacon, 22 Apr. 2009. Web. 15 Apr. 2010. .

U.S. Census Bureau. "Population of the 20 Largest U.S. Cities, 1900–2005." Infoplease. Pearson Education. Web. 30 Apr. 2010. .

Volkmann, Kelsey. "Four Chinese Airlines Agree to Study St. Louis-China Trade." St. Louis Business Journal. St. Louis Business Journal, 29 Mar. 2010. Web. 15 Apr. 2010. .