The Saint Louis University Law Symposium on City/County Reunification

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{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 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.


  • 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
City pays 1% Goes away1 Goes away1
Tax Pool
City doesn’t join pool2 Former city area doesn’t join pool2 Goes away
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
Population/ Rank
319k/58 641k/214 1.3M/9
Population/ Rank
28 28 28
Same5 Better5 A lot Better5
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

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  • Brian

    “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. ”

    Wasn’t the Board of Freeholders ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1989?

    The MO state constitution was never changed after that ruling and they just decided to interpret it differently. I wonder if in plan can be done without a successful legal challenge until the state constitution is changed.

    • rgbose

      The requirement that Freeholders be landowners was thrown out. If used again it’ll likely be called the Board of Electors meaning they have the right to vote in the jurisdiction they come from (9 from city, 9 from county and 1 from elsewhere int he state)
      I think the BoF route offers great opportunity for litigation as a tactic for opponents. The process has been gone through so few times there could be many unsettled legal questions to exploit. Now showing standing and damages, I don’t know, but that doesn’t stop opponents from filing lawsuits against the Loop Trolley, right? This is one of the reasons I prefer a state constitutional amendment to achieve reentry. That process is done all the time.

  • STLEnginerd

    Why doesn’t the city join the sales tax pool with re-entry? To my mind every municipality in St. Louis county should be part of the pool (vs. point of sale cities) but realize some had to be grandfathered in to make the idea of the pool palatable. To my mind STL City would be a new city as part of re-entry thus making them a pool city by county law. Is St. Louis as a pool city seen as an asset or liability when it comes to merger. If the county sees it as a liability they are fooling themselves into not seeing where trends are going. In 10 years STL City I believe would be a positive contributor to the pool rather than a receiver of pool money. To my mind this is the major concession the city makes to achieve re-entry.

    Also even though for all the possibilities the answer is “no change” you might want to include a line item for school districts in your summary as that would be a big part of any opposition argument.

    Lastly as Richard says, lets not kid ourselves, an attempt for Mega-Merger WILL fail. Re-entry might be achievable, and afterward the city can look to incorporate some of the adjacent cities over time or the county could merge municipalities as a counter to the cities influence. Its not ideal but its a compromise solution that takes a big step in the right direction.

    • rgbose

      Check out the Better Together legal memorandum for an explanation of why the city wouldn’t join the pool. There might need to be a CYA in any amendment, etc. It’s also the best outcome politically. Reentry will probably get more support from county muni leaders if the city doesn’t change the pool/point-of-sale system. Better to not join the pool and them reevaluate later after all the other work and transition involved in reentry are accomplished.

      In all scenarios school districts aren’t changed. Some want to have that discussion like the A Greater St. Louis editorial series and Virvus Jones’ remarks at the symposium, but as I said that’s the third rail of local politics. So on this point, I agree with Terry Jones that talking about the big grand reforms comes at an opportunity cost to discussing reforms that can pass.

      • Danny

        I disagree with Better Together’s conclusion. They honestly can have no idea how the sales tax pool structure could be changed at the introduction of City re-entry. Though legally it seems fairly certain that the most recent legislation which established the current revenue sharing system couldn’t be used to FORCE the City into status as a “B” city, there would be political uproar among almost all of the municipal leaders if the City were allowed to re-enter and retain its independence from the revenue sharing system entirely. Though this legal interpretation is probably accurate, on political grounds I believe both the “A” and “B” cities would throw a fit if the City were allowed to retain all of its sales tax revenue into perpetuity, when none of them are allowed that right.

        • rgbose

          It cuts both ways. If the narrative is that the city wants to rejoin the county to sap its resources, then staying out of the pool/point of sale system helps undercut that argument. My calculations shows it would be a net taker as pool city, IKEA not withstanding. The conversation can always be had later, and it happens in the MOLeg anyways. I think it’s a good thing in so much as the simpler the reform proposal the better.

          • Danny

            I just think there will be serious campaigning and lobbying against re-entry by municipal leaders if there isn’t some type of new state legislation that would be activated upon re-entry that outlines the City’s relationship to the revenue sharing system. If I were a municipal leader, I would fight to make sure that the City would be forced into “B” status at the next decennial census if its revenue per capita exceeded the countywide average. I don’t think they’d be willing to keep quiet if the can is entirely kicked down the road to hypothetically allow the City to retain millions in sales tax revenue that all other municipalities in the County would be required to share.

          • rgbose

            Good idea. At the present net givers are already pissed at giving, so don’t want to give to the city, and net takers don’t want their takings diluted, in my estimation. Of course if the city would become a net giver that changes the conversation, then you’ll have city pols in league with Chesterfield!

  • Don

    Thank you Richard for such a thoughtful and detailed summary!

    “Without credible answers people graft on to a generic word like “merger” their worst nightmare outcome to their question.”

    Exactly! This has always been a huge problem. I thought the whole point of Better Together was to solve this problem by providing ‘nonpartisan’ unbiased information?

    Having lived my entire life here, I would be extremely skeptical that anything other than re-entry would be possible, at least for now. But I’m certainly all ears.

    Did Dooley endorse a proposal or tip his hand? Slay? Where is the leadership on this? We can talk about this until the end of time, but until leaders in the City and County take a position and at least outline a proposal, nothing is going to happen.

    • rgbose

      In Slay’s last two inaugurals, he endorsed reentry. Dooley is holding to the line “let’s see what the data shows us, then talk about the type of reform and how to get it done” Check out their answers in the public radio story linked under their names.

  • dempster holland

    One matter of concern is the fact that King Rex Sinquifeld is helping to pay
    for this and is the only private citizen with his own representative on the
    five person board. His goal is to end the earnings tax and thus cripple
    public services in the city, while giving high income persons a windfall

    • rgbose

      Better Together has 16 board members
      I suspect Bert Walker has paid for a lot of their activity.

      • dempster holland

        I believe there is another group working on city=county issues
        that has a five member board, one of whom is named by King
        Rex, and he is also funding it

  • T-Leb

    The comments on this piece are actually very interesting and thoughtful.

  • moe

    Super-Mega is the way to go. You keep hearing about waste and duplicate services and high crime rates, yet if the 90+ communities have no skin in the game, nothing is going to change except to the City residents.

    • Don

      Making the ideal the enemy of the good is a recipe for failure.

      • moe

        Isn’t this the same ‘let’s settle for mediocre’ attitude just wrapped in a different ribbon?
        Again I must say, if the 90+ communities have no skin in the game, there will be an attitude from the County that they “saved” the City, and the City will always be seen as a taker and not a giver. It’s bull too, as we know the City gives a heck of a lot to the region.
        Nor can we allow communities to “opt out”…like what Richmond Heights did with the 64 rebuild.

  • John

    Let’s do the mega-merger! What’s best for St. Louis is best for the entire region!