The View from Kirkwood

Kirkwood

I love this town but damn it frustrates me.  Saint Louis has the potential to be a great region again.  We have a blossoming and nationally recognized innovation and start up scene.  We are a hotbed for the life sciences, a hub for the financial service industry and presently have the world’s largest concentration of plant scientists, and these are just a few of our present opportunities to grow and build upon.  We have impressive cultural attractions for a region of our size and a historic urban fabric that has enormous potential if we actually played our cards right.  Although none of these opportunities will be able to overcome our region’s overwhelming handicap.  The insanely fragmented and destructive way we govern as a region.  The data has been in for a long time now.  Our region is redundant, broken and we are all losing because of it.  It is time to fix it.

In 1876, our regional ancestors narrowly voted for the “great divorce,” an unusual move that separated the City of Saint Louis from Saint Louis County.  The City of Saint Louis remains an independent charter city today that requires it to operate its own county and municipal government services.  In 1876 Saint Louis County was mostly farmland and grew piecemeal and today includes 90 municipal governments, 81 municipal courts, 43 different fire districts and departments and 59 police departments in addition to the St. Louis County services.  Not surprisingly, today the Saint Louis region has the 3rd most governments per capita of the top 35 major metro areas.

The events in the Saint Louis suburb of Ferguson put our region and all its dysfunction on the front page worldwide.  Investigative stories from the Washington Post, Huffington Post and the New York Times exposed us to the world.  How St. Louis County’s jigsaw puzzle of tiny municipal governments, police departments and courts poach off its citizens with speed traps and fines in order to fund the existence of their unnecessary layer of government.  The level of corruption and ineptitude along with the wasted tax dollars that is allowed to flourish in our present system is jaw dropping.

Long before Ferguson, one would think that if Saint Louis were a model for smart governance that other regions would have emulated it over the years.  That of course has never happen and many of the most successful and prosperous regions have made bold moves to build a region that looks the exact opposite of Saint Louis.  Smart, efficient and effective.

Saint Louis compared to our peers

Nashville and Indianapolis are two nearby regions that made impactful decisions decades ago to consolidate their regional governments and have been kicking our tails ever since.  Between 2000 and 2010 the population of the Nashville Metro area grew over 5 times the rate of the St. Louis Metro. The Indianapolis Metro was 3.5 times the rate of Saint Louis Metro.

Five decades ago these two regions couldn’t hold a candle to St. Louis in economic might and now they are on their way to passing us. Not only did Nashville and Indianapolis not originally separate their central city from its county like St. Louis, rather they went in the opposite direction and consolidated their city governments with their respective county governments, dissolved many of the municipality governments and streamlined the delivery of services.

Nashville merged with Davidson County in 1963 and Indianapolis combined with Marion County in 1970. Since that time, they’ve been economically dominating to St. Louis.  Leaders in both these regions attribute much of their success to their unified government and it is often a central theme to any sales pitch in attracting new business and investment.

The graphs demonstrate the difference in the growth of two regions that have taken impressive steps to work and compete regionally compared to the parochial structure and attitude of St. Louis.

normalized metropolitan statistical areas for St. Louis, Indianapolis and Nashville
{normalized metropolitan statistical areas for St. Louis, Indianapolis and Nashville}

normalized populations since 1970 of Davidson County that includes Nashville, Marion County that includes Indianapolis and the combined population of St. Louis County and the City of St. Louis
{normalized populations since 1970 of Davidson County that includes Nashville, Marion County that includes Indianapolis and the combined population of St. Louis County and the City of St. Louis}

Our Statistics and Image Would Improve

In recent times, St. Louis has been labeled with the country’s highest STD rates, the nation’s worst teeth and the most dangerous place in the country.  These lists are often times nonsense, but the damage they do to the image and the economy of our region is real. A poor regional image will affect people’s decision to relocate for a job or where a group chooses to host their conventions.  Regional perceptions influence decisions on where to open a new business, vacation or go to college.

To the rest of the country and the world our negative perception is the reality.  It has even become a reality to many that live within the region.  It is difficult to imagine that with all of the wonder attributes that we have in Saint Louis that we could have such a poor self image.

So how would reentry improve our statistics? 

St. Louis is at the top of many of these negative lists, in particular the crime and health categories (STD rates, obesity, teen pregnancy, bad teeth), because of our fragmented government.  The city and county separation in particular.

Health statistics

Statistics used for many of these publications are pulled from county health records.  As a charter city, the City of St. Louis is its own county and has its own county health department. On top of this unnecessary duplication, this oddity in government structure puts us at a statistical disadvantage because almost every other city in the nation is a municipality within a much larger county.

The statistics of the 62 square miles of urban St. Louis is being compared to regions that include significantly larger portions of their population, including their suburbs.

Reentering the city as a municipality of Saint Louis County, like most cities in America are today, would not only be a positive step toward smarter regional government but would also level the playing field in these rankings. When compared apples to apples our region is a nice and healthy place to live and we should be represented as such.

Crime

Like many metropolitan areas, we have too much crime.  Although it is ridiculous for our region with a relatively modest 2013 metro ranking of 256 out of the 350 metros in crime to be branded as one of the most dangerous in press outlets across the world.  That stigma is debilitating.  Both Nashville (269) and Indianapolis (310) metro areas have a higher metro rate of crime than Saint Louis, but crime and dysfunction are not the immediate thoughts from outsiders when these regions are discussed. That damaging distinction gets placed on us.

Although unlike health rankings, re-entering the city as a municipality of St. Louis County alone will not immediately change the city’s crime rate.

The City of St. Louis is legally unable to expand its borders like many other American cities and has the same 62 square mile land area and city limits as it did back in 1876 when the city and county originally divorced. So as many cities have grown through annexation and mergers, St. Louis could not.

So today when we are comparing the statistics of the 62 square miles in the City of St. Louis to cities like Jacksonville (747 square miles), Houston (599), Nashville (475), Phoenix (516), San Antonio (460), Dallas (340), Kansas City (315), Oklahoma City (606) and many others it is a very unfair comparison.  Here is a list of United States cities by area size

The city of Jacksonville is roughly the size of the sum of all of St. Louis County plus three cities of St. Louis.  If we had the city limits of Jacksonville, St. Louis would be considered one of the safest cities in America.

Through best practices, improved standards and more cooperation we can achieve better public safety and at a lower cost.  Plus nothing helps reduce crime like a growing and inclusive economy.

If we were to follow the paths of regions like Nashville and Indianapolis and merged the city and county governments while eliminating many of the municipality governments in Saint Louis County, we would become a Top 10 American city again (we are presently #58).  This would transform our global image from one that is broken and dangerous to one that is taking the bold and necessary steps to become competitive in the 21st century economy.

list of Top 10 American cities if Saint Louis City and County merged similar to the consolidations that occurred in Nashville and Indianapolis
{list of Top 10 American cities if Saint Louis City and County merged similar to the consolidations that occurred in Nashville and Indianapolis}

For me a smarter, modern and more efficient Saint Louis is the desired end result.  Although a significantly improved Saint Louis regional brand and image would be very welcomed additional benefits.

The Cost of Fragmentation

In 2010 the Saint Louis Post Dispatch had a fantastic series called “Can St. Louis compete?”  Reading these articles is a must, but I will give you a quick take so you can understand some of the destructive effects of our fragmentation.  A main theme of the series is how our redundant governments and services cost the taxpayers money, but these inefficiencies are just a fraction of the problem, as reported by Tim Logan in “The Cost of Fragmentation”

…”such dysfunctional duplication, and the lack of focus it underscores, speaks to a serious challenge St. Louis faces as it tries to find its place in the global economy: The region’s ongoing struggle to act as one.” 

“Right now, we’ve all got on the same uniform, but we’re not on the same team,” said Mike Jones, senior policy adviser to St. Louis County Executive Charlie A. Dooley and a veteran of economic development in the city and the county. “People still look at it like, ‘I’m from Shrewsbury.” I’m from Brentwood.’ In the world of the 21st century, those places don’t exist. St. Louis exists, but those places don’t exist.”

Intra-regional Competition

The fragmentation problem of St. Louis is compounded as our local governments compete with one another over the same jobs and sales tax revenue and use our tax dollars as incentives. This means that corporations, for example, threaten to move from downtown to Clayton or vice versa every time their lease expires in order to coerce huge taxpayer handouts.  Or when a municipality lures a Wal-Mart or other big box store from a neighboring municipality by giving away millions of our tax dollars and then considers this economic growth.

Rather than wasting millions of our tax dollars shuffling existing jobs around, we need to use our resources in ways that grow and attract new jobs into the region.

The rampant abuse with Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) and other taxpayer funded development tools in the intra-regional competition for sales tax revenue is another destructive symptom of our parochial mentality.

In the Post Dispatch article “St. Louis area stunts growth by feeding on itself”,

In a slow-growth region like St. Louis, these government giveaways amount to a zero-sum game. Dozens of municipalities pilfer business from one another – mostly retail outlets, with their low-wage jobs – while the metropolitan area at large gains little in the way of employment or wealth. Rather than luring new investment, the economic ecosystem essentially feeds on itself.

Since 2000, according to state records, local governments in our region have authorized $1.7 billion in tax increment financing. Of that, $1.3 billion has been in Missouri, and nearly half of that has paid for suburban shopping centers.

Through transportation development districts, local governments also have approved $340 million in new sales taxes to pay for roads and parking, mostly at retail centers. 

It’s also a prime example, critics say, of how development incentives have run amok in St. Louis, gobbling up money we could have used to help the region compete in an increasingly complex and knowledge-based global economy.

Academic research, Thomas said, has found that 90 percent to 95 percent of jobs in TIF-financed retail centers are not new to the metro area, but moved from somewhere nearby.

All this money to finance retail saps other efforts to grow our economy, said St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann. He’s been a vocal critic of this system for years, and says we need to focus more on regional efforts to create real jobs.

“You can’t just call anything economic development and justify it, “he said. “This is just one city at the expense of another, or St. Charles County at the expense of St. Louis County.”

But that’s the way our system works, TIFs defenders say.

Railing against TIF misses the point, said Greg Smith, a lawyer with Husch Blackwell in Clayton who has represented cities and developers in incentive deals. It’s not designed to create jobs but rather to help St. Louis-area cities patch holes in their budget.

“The real issue is why don’t we plan or deliver services regionally,” Smith said. “That’s the crux of it, not which tools we use.”

Still, the high costs of TIF are clear, and all the sales tax money it attracts is just shifting around.

Consider Gravois Bluffs in Fenton, which got incentives totaling $80 million. Its success helped empty out Crestwood Plaza, just six miles away. St. Louis Mills, built in Hazelwood with a $18.5 million TIF and a $34 million transportation development district, helped finish off St. Ann’s Northwest Plaza.

Americans want urban options

An impressive collection of evidence documents that today’s young adults have a pronounced taste for urban living. One poll, conducted by the marketing firm Lesser & Co., reported that 77 percent of Americans born after 1981 want to live in an “urban core.” More than 70 percent said they would remain urbanites even after they had children.

All this is in addition to the baby boomers now approaching retirement. Another survey by Lesser found that 71 percent of the boomers placed “walking distance to transit” at the top of their list of housing demands.

This is an opportunity for St. Louis.  The world has fallen back in love with cities and we have an urban core with a rich history that is in a class with only a handful of elite American cities.

If we worked smarter and thought of ourselves regionally like they do in Nashville and Indianapolis, our historic urban core could be one of our greatest assets.

Regional trends have changed

St. Louis County is now in a similar situation to where the City was 60 years ago, landlocked and with very little of the remaining cheap and undeveloped land that has driven its growth for the last century. That advantage has shifted to St. Charles, Jefferson and Franklin Counties.

The 2010 Census showed that St. Louis County population is stagnant.  Between 2000 and 2010 while the region was overall down only 32,000, Saint Louis County had 88,000 jobs disappear.  Some of those jobs have returned as the economy has rebounded but the writing is on the wall is that the status quo is failing Saint Louis County.

Meanwhile in the city after a half-century of nothing but negative trends things have began to turn around. Since 2000, billions of dollars have been invested throughout the city and many city neighborhoods have been revitalized. Presently there is a construction boom going on in the central corridor that hasn’t been seen in more than 60 years. The 2010 census showed that the city lost overall population but it also showed that the demographics of those choosing to live in the city is changing dramatically.

In 2000, only 19.1% of the city population had a bachelor’s degree or higher which was 1.5 points below the state average of 21.6%. By 2013 according to census numbers that percentage has exploded to 29.6% and 3.4 points above the 2013 state average 26.2%.

Regardless of trends, we must focus on the big picture that we are significantly stronger working together than as independent and competing tiny pieces and that the present system has been damaging the region our entire lifetime.

What about school districts?

Our region and state need to find solutions for kids in failing districts but it should not be attached to streamlining regional governments and services.  These need to be addressed as totally separate issues.  School districts already cross municipal lines and have independent taxing authority and would remain that way after any type of consolidation of governments or services.  I believe attaching these two conversations would confuse and potentially doom both efforts.

What is the government structure in Nashville and Indy?

The Indianapolis consolidated city-county system, called UniGov, has an elected mayor that heads the executive branch and the legislative branch is made up of the 29 member City-County Council.

Nashville consolidated city-county government, called Metro, includes six smaller municipalities in a two-tier system. Thirty-five of 40 members are elected from single-member districts; five are elected at-large.

We don’t have to re-discover the wheel here.  Study what has worked well in other regions, what would make sense here and do that.

What exactly are you proposing?

My goal is to highlight the ridiculous fragmentation we have in Saint Louis City and County, the damage it has and continues to cause to our region and beat the drums for change.

If Nashville and Indianapolis could consolidate and work smarter as a region without nearly as much to gain as Saint Louis from a similar effort, at some point I believe we can do it too. Politically in St. Louis, a full city-county merger is unlikely right now. What is possible is enacting smaller but impactful reforms using the information gathered through groups like Better Together.

Better Together is a grassroots project sponsored by the Missouri Council for a Better Economy (MCBE) that is studying our region and comparing it to the best practices across the country. The goal is to find possible solutions to improve in areas of public finance, public safety, economic development, public health, parks and recreation and general administration.  The studies published so far have been eye opening and they have made suggestions that could dramatically improve our region. The hope is that other organizations and our regional leaders will act on many of these recommendations. This assessment and conversation is direly needed so please add your voices to the conversation. Change will only occur with pressure from the citizens of Saint Louis demanding it.

A Kirkwood business owner

I’m a dentist with a practice in Kirkwood.  Of our 17 employees at this location, only one actually lives in Kirkwood.  Some live in the city, most live throughout Saint Louis County in different municipalities and unincorporated parts of Saint Louis County.  The vast majority of our patients are also not from Kirkwood but from all over the region.  Regardless of which individual puzzle piece we live in, at our practice we understand that we all live in Saint Louis and the practice and everyone’s livelihoods are directly linked to the health of our regional economy.  This is a concept Saint Louis must understand.  I want Saint Louis to boom.  I want my kids to want to live here when they become adults.  But serious changes must occur.

The world is watching Saint Louis.  Will we cement our legacy as the broken region showcased after Ferguson?  Or will we show the world that we are capable of great things and finally live up to our potential?  I know what I choose.