Let It Go: Time to Disincorporate Municipalities in St. Louis County

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The tyrannical, dysfunctional, corrupt, selfish, incompetent, impotent, wasteful, insolvent municipalities in St. Louis County have to go. Save an appearance of leadership and courage at the state or regional level, it is unlikely an intervention from the Governor and Legislature or a Board of Freeholders (tough to convene, let alone passing something they have proposed) will happen. Residents desirous of change in their towns will have to take it upon themselves to dissolve them.

Sen. Eric Schmitt’s bill to limit the portion of a municipality’s budget that comes form traffic fines and fees to 10% has a good chance of passing this session. Without increasing revenues from traffic fines and fees many towns probably wouldn’t have made it through the recession. The legislation may starve some town governments, but it will still take action on the part of citizens to put them out of existence.

Getting rid of one is rare. The most politically savvy and organized are usually the ones invested in perpetuating the status quo. An attempt in Uplands Park in 2013 failed. The only one to dissolve this century is St. George, which voted to disincorporate in 2011. It took just 345 votes to make this happen. Two articles in the Post Dispatch a year after the dissolution show that it turned out to be no big loss for residents, and other than concern over the removal of some stop signs, some are quite happy with the changes that came in becoming a part of unincorporated St. Louis County. The italicized quotes below come from them.

St. George disincorporation brings minor changes to landscape
A city no more, change on the horizon for St. George

The maintenance deferred in St. George ultimately became the burden of the entire county. Town officials all over the county defer maintenance in favor of maintaining staffing and service levels. They hold on to low productivity land uses while depending on county, state, and federal subsidies for infrastructure funding. The bill is only getting bigger the longer they endure.

Ultimately, financial necessity sparked the decision to be absorbed into unincorporated St. Louis County. By disincorporating, residents avoided tax increases to repair aging streets.

Entrenched interests won’t give up their gravy trains without a fight. At the Jan. 6 St. Louis County Council meeting Mayor Mayor Viola Murphy of Cool Valley said “We are all voted in by the people of our cities that believe in our leadership.” Yes Mayor, you were elected with 103 votes; you are very important. Were voters presented with any other options? They haven’t been since 1962. A real leader would recognize that the current system is failing his/her citizens. What’s the movie line? “Let it go?”

“Quite frankly, what a municipality does is create somebody’s little kingdom,” Burns said. “It’s an extra layer of government you don’t need.”

If the 24 municipalities in the Normandy School District consolidated, it would have more than 44,000 people, the third largest in St. Louis County, and be in a much stronger position to confront the challenges there without risking being ignored as part of unincorporated St. Louis County. Instead of wasting money on 24 of everything or wasting time and energy each time to come up with a cooperation scheme on this or that, one city could hire professionals to help with economic development, planning, writing grants, lobbying the county and state, be able to issue debt, etc. But consolidation would require many to give up the status quo.

I’m pushing for disincorpoations over mergers because while difficult, mergers are even more difficult. More than one entity has to form a plan, one entrenched interest has to give up something to another, and it would have to pass in each jurisdiction at the same time.

A disincorporation involves only one jurisdiction. Afterwards the unincorporated area could be annexed into another town which brings then into another system rather than merging two existing ones.

She especially appreciates the police services versus those under St. George’s department.

How to get it done

The relevant statute for villages is 80.570. A petition with signatures of half the voters is required. A tall order. The Board of Freeholders petition only requires 3% of voters in St. Louis City and St. Louis County. The legislature should lower this requirement. A 60% majority is needed to pass.

Sen. Jamilah Nasheed has prefiled a bill that would disincorporate all the villages in St. Louis County. There are 20 with about 19,000 residents in total. I doubt this will go anywhere.

Calverton Park voted to change from a village to a 4th class city last November. Anticipating scrutiny over its heavy reliance on court fines and fees, they proposed the change so they would have more options to raise taxes. Fragmentation is expensive after all.

“If the voters had said ‘no’ against the disincorporation, we would have had to raise taxes,” Wilkerson said.

The relevant statute for 4th class cities is 79.490. The process is pretty much the same with the same high bar of petition signatures. The legislature should lower it. There are 44 in St. Louis County with a total of 213,000 residents.

There is no process for the disincorporation of 3rd class cities. The legislature should add one. There are eight in St. Louis County with a total of 125,000 residents.

Home rule cities may put a disincorporation process in their charter. There are 18 in St. Louis County with a total of 327,000 residents.

Unincorporated St. Louis County makes up the balance of the county with 323,000 residents – in effect the largest municipality in the St. Louis region.

Rep. John Diehl, now Speaker Diehl, proposed HB 1891, a municipal accountability scheme, in 2012. This should be revived, worked on, and passed. It would set standards of performance for municipalities with a “shape up or ship out” mechanism that could result in dissolution.

If we want things to change, we actually have to change things. These towns are a cancer on the region and are a disservice to those living in them.

This is something I’m proud we did.

Update 2/17/2015 – Representative Bob Burns introduced HB 741 which makes it easier to disincorporate municipalities in St. Louis County. The number of signatures required to put it on the ballot would be reduced to 25% of registered voters. Passage requires a simple majority. It adds the same disincorporation procedure for 3rd class cities.

Edmundson Letter by nextSTL.com

St. Louis County, Missouri – Population of Municipalities 2015 by nextSTL.com

Missouri – HB0741 Disincorporation Bill by nextSTL.com

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  • Tom Gowen

    One big government is harder to change. One big government is harder to prosecute when it fails or becomes currupt. One big government does not listen to small groups. You can your big government when my bullets are gone and my heart beat stops.

    • Mike F

      You only imagine your small government listens to you. And your packing heat against municipal consolidation? Truly, blood will be spilled if we merge Velda Village, Berkley, St. Ann, Cool Calley, and all of the other 5,347 munis in STL C?

      *Sigh*

  • matimal

    How about working to ‘undermine’ municipalities independence by bringing them into shared service agreements on roads, schools, water/sewer, police, etc. Might that work better politically in the post-Ferguson moment?

    How does St. Louis city make the most of the fact that it ISN’T a tiny municipality but can operate on a scale that other cannot?

    • rgbose

      Many roads are maintained by the county or state. Water and sewer are already combined (MSD, American Water). Schools are a whole different animal.

      In other areas they have been at a slow pace. It comes at an opportunity cost of time and energy to dealing with other present issues.

      • matimal

        Schools, parks, police, garbage sharing could make a huge difference.

        • rgbose

          School districts are completely separate from municipal governments. My point is instead of wasting time and energy hammering out a cooperation agreement on say trash removal, merge or disincorporate and spend time lobbying county, state, feds for something else important.

          • matimal

            but proposals for outright municipal mergers will create tremendous political opposition. It will be harder than cooperation agreements. That is MY point.

          • Matt Hay

            You are both making the same point, why merger is not the best way to affect the needed changes

  • kjohnson04

    I live in St. Louis City. The winning formula of St. Louis is one government for St. Louis City and County. I’m in favor of one police department, one fire department, one school district. With a “only-one” layer of local government, we would finally act like our larger city peers, namely our closest, Chicago. We could seriously compete for things…demand that things be built the way we want it to, not the way the developer want’s too. Universal municipal disincorporation, or a plan similar to Indianapolis where the little fiefdoms are starved out of existence, and forced to merge or work more closely with the core city.

    This will be a move that would have to be done by our legislature on the premise of “wouldn’t it be a lot cheaper if…” Appeal to rural Missourian’s view that the St. Louis costs too much like it is. Deemphasize that St. Louis and KC would essentially rule the roost in Jeff City if a universal consolidation would occur.

    Surprisingly, most of the support for merger is coming from sources you wouldn’t expect to, namely first responders. Police officers would feel safer if they were part of a larger department, and same is true of Fire and EMS.

    There are a lot things to discuss, like what would a unified government look like? It’s time to have this discussion. Let go of the past, and let’s do this.

    • dick

      Chicago isn’t like that at all. Cook county is made up of many munis, the city of Chicago is only one. Sorry you are so uninformed.

      • kjohnson04

        Actually I’m aware Cook County is comprised of several municipalities. That said, most of them are of sufficient size to be functional; additionally, Chicago by virtue of it’s size and population can dictate terms on development, planning, etc. without fear of a badly managed village giving away the farm at the expense of it’s residents to ‘one-up’ the core city.

        • Matt Hay

          You obviously never lived in one of those municipalities which line Chicago.Not something you want to emulate. Look to the Kentucky model adopted about 30 years ago as a better example of what you seem to be advocating.

          • matimal

            Southern states have always had much simpler local government structures. Power is concentrated in state governments in many southern states. In Kentucky, a resident lives in ONE local government area, just across the border in Ohio, a resident can be subject to 20 different local governments simultaneously.

    • STLEnginerd

      Also not sure how it would change Jeff city were representation is proportional to population in a district and in no way restricted by municipal boundaries. If anything it would change St. Louis city demographics to the point were the consensus opinion would be closer aligned to the jeff city republicans. Obviously still left leaning but more moderated.

      • kjohnson04

        It’s a possibility, particularly with demographics of West County. More locally, elections would become somewhat more competitive, creating more serious discourse on regional issues.

    • flyover

      Your “solution” would only lead to perpetual one-party (Dem) rule. When one party is unchecked, unions will control government, basically negotiating with themselves for benefits. If you want to see how this works, take a look at Illinois. You are right on one thing. We would be just like Chicago.

      • kjohnson04

        And what we have right now is preferable? We have single party rule in most of St. Louis County (where most of the unchecked fiefdoms are). I rather have Chicago with a stronger centralized government, and an ability to compete with other parts of the country rather than the segregated, stratified, duplicitous mess we have now. *Anything,* and I do mean *anything* would be a massive improvement over the woefully wasteful mess we have right now.

        • flyover

          As someone else pointed out, Chicago is very much like St. Louis. There are probably more small municipalities than we have here. So, I’m not sure I get your point. The other problem with your “one” plan is the unintended consequence of one school district. School Districts claim, and to some extent I agree, that they add a premium to home valuations. Take the Ladue School District. Homes in Olivette and Creve Coeur generally are not advertised as being in those cities, but as in “Ladue Schools.” People in Olivette pay a premium so their kids will be in that district. The same houses a few blocks away in Overland, which is in the Ritnour District sell for much less. The taxpayers in Olivette pay their property taxes based on that premium. With “one” school district, those parents in Olivette would have no assurance their kids would attend school in Ladue, “one” district could redistrict their kids to the Ritnour school building. since there is only one mega-district. Therefore, the value of their home would decrease by the amount of that premium. That would mean their assessed valuation would decrease and fewer dollars would be paid to all taxing subdistricts: fire, library, special schools, museums/zoo, etc. causing shortfalls and the need to raise tax rates. Now, you might say, yes, but wouldn’t the adjustment even itself out? I don’t think that is possible. For that to happen, the poorer districts would have to see their properties increase and I don’t think that happens when there are other factors other than schools that are holding values down. Even if it happened, would the poor residents there be able to pay more? Personally, I think one school district wouldn’t make any difference in student achievement. There are more factors that matter more such as parental involvement. The other issue is what tax rate would the “one” district use? Let’s again take the Ladue District. In spite of having raised their rate a few years ago, Ladue has one of the lower tax rates in the County. The reason is the properties are so expensive that the lower rates multiplied times the higher home values brings in more money than in districts with higher tax rates and lower home values. Certainly, you can’t use the lower Ladue rate in North and South County. So, you have to assume the tax rate for the more expensive districts would go up. No problem, you say, soak those rich people, right? Except that when you do, you make those expensive homes less desirable and their valuations will decline by the amount of the extra tax again lowering property tax yields. How long would people find Ladue a desirable destination if the taxes were unaffordably higher and there was no assurance their kid would even attend schools there? When home values decline in Ladue and Clayton, they will decline in Florissant and Ballwin. You would be opening a very dangerous can of worms that could send St. Louis County property values into a tail spin. The only winners in a one district scenario would be the private schools and St. Charles as more residents head for the border.

  • Guest

    I live in St. Louis County. I’m of the opinion that St. Louis city and the entirety of St. Louis County be united into one government. The idea of St. Louis County being reorganized into just a few communities (as I’ve heard suggested) probably wouldn’t be any better because the entire area is geographically too condensed and densely populated. The economic impact if the city and entire county were under one government could only benefit such an area.
    Ah…but there are so many naysayers. My neighbor is one. He’s so anti-city that it’s ridiculous. He recently informed me that the city did not sever itself from the county, but that the county “kicked St. Louis out”. I was speechless at such incredible ignorance…! There’s a serious lack of support and downright hate (oddly) of the city of St. Louis in her own suburbs. This is troubling because such thought bring actions that might serve one’s particular community well but in the long run it does the area as a whole no good.

    What’s needed is to educate such lame thought (and how might we do that?) and hopefully proceed sensibly from there.
    Trash your own front door, then wonder why no one wants to visit…hmmm…only in St. Louis. (Apologies for possibly getting a bit off topic…but one of my major concerns about the area as a whole).

    • Richard Ontiveros

      Much of this hatred towards the city is racially motivated. Of course when confronted about this attitude (hate of the city) you will hear they don’t like the crime, the schools, the one percent city earnings tax but underneath all that phony babble the real reason is white’s don’t want to live near poor uneducated blacks nor make the situation get better. Until we deal with this issue of subversive racism that exists in St. Louis, we won’t get anywhere. I am hopeful the Michael Brown incident will be the spark to deliver the change that is so desperately necessary for St. Louis. It is so frustrating because this subversive racism is what keeps holding St. Louis back from being a truly great city again. All of these ideas of going through the legislative process to get these fiefdoms to dissolve and for the City & County to merge are great but keep in mind all these fiefdoms are meant to keep the area segregated rather than become one. We should keep at it but its going to take time, we could start with the merger of the police and fire departments and school districts.

      • A

        What evidence do you have to support this wild claim?

        • Alex Ihnen

          For evidence, I would look at the history of St. Louis County municipalities, and their incorporation for the purpose of excluding black residents. I also see evidence of this in how segregated our city and county are. It doesn’t seem a wild theory to conclude that many white residents in St. Louis haven’t and don’t want to live with black residents. Obviously one can’t isolate this and other issues (crime, old houses, small yards, schools, etc.), so there isn’t one answer, but to believe that race doesn’t play a significant role would seem to be ignoring a long history.

          • Yojimbo

            I’m assuming “A”s comment was meant ironically. It’s either irony or profound blindness.

          • flyover

            I am not sure the history of people now long dead has any relevance today. Many of the small towns that were incorporated to impose what used to be called “restricted” neighborhoods now have black mayors and a majority of black residents. It is dangerous to use history as it must work both ways. Segregation was a Democrat Party strategy. Given that history should today’s Democrat party be branded with the same iron that could have been accurately used on their antecedents?

          • joe

            The same people that overwhelmingly supported both Dooley and Obama? Doesn’t makes sense to me…

          • flyover

            why did you remove my comment?

        • SnakePlissken

          Born and raised in the County, I can confirm, residents here treat African Americans like they do Muslims…everyone is suspicious.

          • dick

            Many racists in the city too. STL hills is probably more racists than Ucity. Either way, the county sucks, thats why you should live in the City, not because of racial attitudes.

        • Mike F

          Recovering Roman Catholic here, and I can second the opinion of the above correspondent, and those below: White Catholics, the majority I would say, run along the lines from virulently racist (“those f***ing n*gg*rs!”) to merely racist (“blacks, always asking for more”), to bigoted. Wild claim? You know what a wild claim is? Contending that racism DOESN’T exist amongst many white people in the surrounding counties (where most of them fled to after the “neighborhood started getting a little dark” (direct quote, BTW, from a former co-worker). And they were too weak to fight like mad, angry dogs against the red-lining by the insurance and banking industries, instituted as it was, at least in part, by the policies of the Federal government. Howsabout other co-workers who referred to the only black supervisor as (the) “token”, and who contended that the only reason he was supervisor was because of his skin color (though not in those precise words *cough*) No shit. These same co-workers were not particularly kind, either, to the past-owners of the company, who were Jewish.

          It should be noted that a black fellow co-worker intoned, “Don’t try to Jew us down”, at a meeting where one of the new ownership group board members–who happened to be Jewish–was in attendance. I guess he didn’t know that two of the three young male civil rights workers who were found shot and buried in an earthen damn in Mississippi were Jewish. (Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner; the other man, James Earl Chaney, was of African descent).

          To deny ignorance exists is simply foolish.

          • Joe

            None of this is evidence. These are isolated events. Yes, racism exists, but these examples don’t represent the majority of St. Louis whites. It’s funny you can call someone else a bigot while insulting the Catholic Church in the same comment. People like you pretend to be open minded but are only tolerant of those with your own views.

          • Alex Ihnen

            Racism doesn’t have to be the motivating factor for a majority of people for it to have a very significant impact. Sadly this conversation has become people talking past one another.

      • Tom Gowen

        You are soooo wrong…..wait maybe charles dooley is white