The Saint Louis University Law Symposium on City/County Reunification

{SLU Law Common Space on the 12th Floor}

The Annual Public Law Review Symposium United We Stand or United We Fall: The Reunification of St. Louis City and County was held on Feb 28 at the SLU Law facility in Downtown St. Louis (by the way, the SLU Law building is really great and is an example of what’s possible downtown. Other universities and companies should add facilities downtown). The one held last year, Saving the Cities: How to Make America’s Urban Core Sustainable in the Twenty-first Century, keynote by Richard Barron, was excellent.

The day started with Law Dean Michael Wolff wishing he won’t have to live to be 150 to see progress on the City/County split. Mayor Slay and County Executive Dooley hit it out of the park. Dooley’s remark resonated “We’re in a fight for our lives on the world stage.” Former Senator from Indiana and former Mayor of Indianapolis when it created UNIGOV, Richard Lugar, was the keynote speaker. He was instrumental in getting support throughout the state for passage of UNIGOV in the state legislature. Many were upset at not having a referendum vote. They made the next mayoral race a proxy vote. Mayor Lugar won (in the now bigger city) 155,164 to 101,367 in the highest turnout race for mayor ever.

Joe Reagan of the St. Louis Regional Chamber spoke of his experience in Louisville while in the same role. Louisville merged with Jefferson County, Kentucky in 2003. They had tried three times before. He said in the ultimately successful attempt the plan was much simpler. It had broad political support. (Where are you Jay Nixon, Peter Kinder, Kit Bond, Roy Blunt, Claire McCaskill, Ann Wagoner, Eric Schmitt, John Lamping, John Diehl, etc? Representative Clay has endorsed reentry.) Reagan got to witness the birth of a new great American city that attracts top talent in both the private and public sector.

James Bufurd, formerly head of the St. Louis Urban League and now a board member of Better Together, spoke of how fragmentation holds the small African American (formerly white and incorporated to keep them white) communities back. I think consolidation of the 24:1 cities should be considered. A city of 42,000 people (3rd largest in St. Louis County) would surely be in a stronger position to leverage its resources, lobby the county, state, and federal governments for help, and attract and nurture businesses.

The rest of the speakers all did a great job. Hopefully all the audio of the speeches and Q&As will be posted. Great podcast material.

A few things bugged me about the presentation and where things are going. It miffed me that the youngest person on the panels was Dave Leopholtz ~34. This is about the future after all. The weakest part of the day was the Q&A after the “A Reunification’s Effect at State and Local Levels.” The audience wanted to know more about how to get a reunification done, and the panel just didn’t know about our arcane framework- the Board of Freeholders. We ended up having a conversation amongst the audience, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Look for more on Nextstl.com on that.

I asked Dave Leipholtz, a classmate of mine unknowingly, of Better Together whether they would at some point provide a rundown of some of the most popular reform ideas out there, and how they’d change things. People have a lot of specific questions on the outcomes of the reform ideas out there. What happens to the Earnings tax, sales tax pool, debt, etc? The answer is that it depends on which reform is proposed and may even depend on which path is taken to achieve it. Without credible answers people graft on to a generic word like “merger” their worst nightmare outcome to their question. I’ll attempt to do it myself here, but it would help a lot if Better Together (which can’t endorse a specific proposal and thus doesn’t want to be seen as doing so) or some other credible neutral party out there would look into it. I’m not a lawyer nor a constitutional law expert; I just play one on the Internet.

Definitions

  • Reentry – Merger of St. Louis County and the County of the City of St. Louis. The city becomes the 91st municipality of St. Louis County and the other 90 munis are unmolested.
  • Mega-Merger- St. Louis city becomes a part of unincorporated St. Louis County under the county’s charter (folding everyone in under the city charter surely wouldn’t pass by voters). The city’s Mayor, the Board of Aldermen, all the other offices go away. Surely how St. louis County serves the unincorporated areas would change as well. The 90 munis are unmolested.
  • Super-Mega Merger- A brave new world where the City, County, and the 90 munis are combined under one government structure. How that government is structred is up for debate. It may have a completely new tax structure.

I’ll assume the least change possible here, and that it’s done under the Board of Freeholders assuming what we do can’t supersede other state statutes. Now given the broad power we have and the fact that it’s in the MO Constitution rather than under a statute, maybe we can trump present state statutes. Can someone answer this?

Reentry Mega-Merger Super-Mega-Merger
Earnings
Tax
City pays 1% Goes away1 Goes away1
Sales
Tax Pool
City doesn’t join pool2 Former city area doesn’t join pool2 Goes away
County
Property Tax
City pays3 City area pays3 City area pays3
Debt City bears its debt2 City area bares its debt, new debt
borne by the county
City area bares its debt, new
debt borne by all
City
Population/ Rank
319k/58 641k/214 1.3M/9
County
Population/ Rank
28 28 28
Crime
Rank
Same5 Better5 A lot Better5
Circuit
Courts Merge
No6 No6 No6
School Districts Same Same Same

1. I assume Prop A statute reigns.
2. From Better Together Legal Memorandum
3. Show-Me Institute Brief on the City paying County property taxes.
4. Depends on the Census Bureau.
5. If SLMPD doesn’t change its jurisdiction the denominator remains 319K. Under Mega-Merger presumably the SLMPD is folded into the County PD so the denominator is 649k (more if contracted muni service is included), and under the Super-Mega-Merger all police depts are consolidated and the denominator is 1.3M.
6. According to the Bryan Cave analysis done in the 80s for Civic progress. See page 57 (pdf page 61) embedded below

The other point of contention is whether this is a discussion we should be having. Terry Jones always stresses that the best approach is targeted incrementalism. We’ve been doing that quite well and shouldn’t distract ourselves by going for some grand plan that may not pass, may not provide progress on some of the issues it’s intended to address, and can’t be undone if it has unbearable unintended consequences. Todd Swanstrom seconded this saying this sucks up the oxygen in the civic discourse.

First where are they on CAR? It’s sucking up a lot of the civic discourse, public and philanthropic resources, and won’t address the real problem between downtown and the Arch grounds. The last incremental addition was Prop P, an additional sales tax. We need to implement reforms that render equal or better services for the same or fewer tax dollars.

In spirit I agree. I caution against going for the Super-Mega-Merger and the Mega-Merger. There is too much uncertainty for opponents to exploit, and I don’t think they’ll pass. Pushing to merge school districts is licking the third rail of local politics. I view Reentry as incremental. It will be a launchpad for better tackling other issues of the day. With representation on the county council and voting for county executive the whole 1.3M are in it together and thus can’t, to a lesser extent, keep problems at arms length. With the city in the county, merging health depts is easier. It wouldn’t take a state statute or Board of Freeholders process.

Swanstrom also stressed how the city/county divide is being replaced by a north/south divide, and this should be our focus. He admitted that the city/county divide contributes to this somewhat. I say it contributes a lot. It allows people to ignore the problems in the county and focus on the problems in the city as regional whipping boy/dumping ground. It sucks up the civic oxygen. In the case of Metrolink expansion the county is paying a lot of the Metro taxes and wants the Westport line. They’re paying for it right? But we know the right one is the North-South line. If the city were in the county, no brainer, non-issue, let’s move on to the next thing. We need to accelerate reforms and big regional decisions such as Metrolink. Reentry does this. The world isn’t going to wait around for us.

I felt the warm and fuzzies of being in a room of mostly like-minded people, all who want what’s best for St. Louis. Let’s keep the discussion going and spread it far and wide.

{See Twitter hashtag #MergSTL for a play-byplay of the day’s events. A Storify of the Twitter conversation.}

Bryan Cave Legal Feasibility Study City County STL by nextSTL.com