Municipal Leaders Should Have Honest Conversations About Our Region’s Challenges

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As a 60-year resident of the St. Louis region, and therefore someone highly invested in this place and its future, I’ve been following with great interest the studies produced by Better Together. The data-driven approach and rigor of the reports lend significant credibility, and I’ve been pleased to see Better Together’s work cited by other groups, from the Arch City Defenders to the Ferguson Commission to the United States Department of Justice.

So, it was with some surprise and disappointment that I encountered a new not-for-profit organization spawned from the St. Louis County Municipal League, which represents St. Louis County’s 90 municipalities and has a vested interest in the preservation of those towns and cities, regardless of the cost to the region. The group, CitiesStrong, describes its goal as to “preserve and improve local governments in St. Louis County” and “…counteract an inaccurate narrative that seeks to eliminate viable local governments or that proposed that municipal services can be provided more efficiently or effectively as a result of consolidation or merger”.1

The municipalities’ group just issued a new report that questions the veracity of a report that Better Together issued 18 months ago, comparing the cost of local government in St. Louis to the cost in Indianapolis and Louisville. I found that report quite compelling at the time, as it laid bare our region’s significant overspend when compared to similar regions such as Indianapolis and Louisville. Better Together found that St. Louis residents were spending between $750 million and $1 billion more each and every year than residents in Indianapolis and Louisville – and for the same basket of municipal services. The munies’ report was prepared by Mark Tranel from the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ Public Policy Research Group.

Tranel and the munies say Better Together’s study is flawed because it excluded hundreds of millions of dollars in Indianapolis spending. He’s right—Better Together did exclude hundreds of millions of dollars. But that exclusion made Better Together’s report more accurate, not less. Indianapolis’ municipal government spends hundreds of millions of dollars operating hospitals, nursing homes, and stadiums. St. Louis does not operate hospitals, nursing homes, or stadiums, so those expenditures were removed in order to provide an apples-to-apples comparison that was both accurate and fair. On the flip side, St. Louis’ local governments operate airports and water systems, and Indianapolis does not, so that spending was excluded from St. Louis’ total. The report and its appendices make it clear that researchers at Better Together took great care to make the comparisons as rigorously accurate as possible.

To be candid, I am disheartened and rather disgusted by the muni groups’ response to Better Together’s work; their defensiveness is both belated and short-sighted. It is very unfortunate that much of the leadership of St. Louis County’s municipalities is still unwilling to participate in an honest discussion about ways we could change to benefit taxpayers. Even in this belated whimper about an 18-month-old study, the group states that “there was no explanation by Better Together for why the more complete and correct information was not included in its study.” Even this trivial swipe is untrue. The author of the report—Mark Tranel—met at length with Better Together researchers and was provided information on every single piece of data that went into Better Together’s report. Even if Tranel had not been afforded these opportunities, he (and all of the public) could view the data at www.bettertogetherstl.com.

The continued defensiveness from municipal leaders is discouraging and counterproductive. Over the past two years, the Arch City Defenders, Better Together, the Ferguson Commission, the Missouri General Assembly, the St. Louis County Council, and the United States Department of Justice have raised concerns about some operations in some municipalities. And yet: Municipal leaders continue to circle the wagons, cast aspersions on every critic’s motives, and do nothing to remedy the problems that are revealed. Instead they malign their critics and spend more and more tax dollars to defend the system from which they profit. This St. Louisan has had enough, and I suspect I am far from alone. Now is the time for difficult conversations. Now is the time for insightful questions that lead to answers. Now is the time to take a hard look at a system that is, in some places, very broken. The work by Better Together and other forward-thinking organizations only helps us move toward a more livable, equitable, prosperous region.

1. Source: IRS Form 1024 application for 501c4 status produced by My Town-Our County dba CitiesStrong

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  • I think I know the munis’ plan, and it’s an excellent one. Nobody’s been talking about the procedure for eventually merging the city and county, but there is one, and it’s laid out in the state constitution. As far as I know, the last time the procedure was successfully invoked was to create the Zoo-Museum District, so most people don’t remember. It’s article 6, section 30, but as altered by later court decisions (the board of freeholders would have to be proportional to population, not even between the city and county, and not limited to just landowners).

    In the end, any plan has to be approved by a majority vote in BOTH the city and county. The voting population is older and whiter than the actual population (a group likely to favor the status quo). And the state constitution requires that the vote be completely separate from any other election, so it couldn’t be held during (for instance) a presidential election, when the electorate tends to be younger and less white.

    So the merger process is very much skewed in favor of doing nothing. All the munis have to do is convince 50% + 1 of county voters in an off-year election that the eventual plan is a bad idea, and it dies.

    Historically, most proposals to change the city-county structure have failed. The last successful one (I believe) was the creation of the Zoo-Museum District in 1971, which was fairly uncontroversial; before that was the creation of the MSD. Attempts to make significant changes have failed, either in court or at the ballot box.

    The alternative to this process is to pass an amendment to the state constitution wiping out sections 30-33 of article 6 and making Saint Louis a normal county. But that faces significant hurdles, and invites the state legislature to monkey in the operation of our local government- and god only knows what those hayseeds would do to us.

  • matimal

    That honest conversation won’t come from elected officials, though. It will come from others, maybe even ordinary people who rise to fill the void Mike Hejna describes. But, IS St. Louis city better if it finds’ itself tied to north county? To be blunt, St. Louis’s city’s only hope is for north county to fall so that St. Louis city has a place to offload some share of its poverty and violence and reduce the burden on city finances and resources. This will allow the city the chance to more confidently build for its future. For St. Louis city, north county must fall for it to rise. There is no alternative for a municipality located in a slow-growing metro.

    • Devin in South City

      I think I get what you’re saying… Since the region itself isn’t growing, growth for any particular municipality is a zero sum game. And so maybe the City just needs to look out for its own interests over the region. I guess it’s more diplomatic to say that a strong urban core is the best thing for the region.

      For sure the conversation we don’t want to have is that when we talk about growth, we’re mostly talking about undermining our neighbors instead of attracting new residents and businesses.

      • matimal

        Our neighbors will undermine themselves. I’m not describing sabotage, I’m describing the kind of competition that sharpens the political skills and coalitions of local government. A strong urban core is not necessarily, and certainly not equally, beneficial to all in the region. Some will be hurt by an improving urban core. We must accept that there are winners and losers and that none of us is actually “the region,” but are individuals within it. We have individual interests and there are organizational interests that must be acknowledged and understood instead of endlessly issuing pleas for everyone to start thinking regionally.

        • Kimberly R Hampton

          The region has long written off North City (since the 40s) and, for a number of years, decided that North County isn’t worth thinking about, so what you’re saying is nothing new. But at least you’re honest about it.

          • matimal

            An unwillingness to be truly honest is a big part of St. Louis’ problem.

  • SouthCityDreams

    I agree with you on the need for a consolidation of governments entirely. I too have read the studies, seen the damage firsthand, and am disgusted by the provincialism in the region.

    However, I this article is a little misguided. The tough conversation is not bullying small (and big) municipalities into disincorporation. The tough conversation is realizing that we do not need to have a uni-gov to start making progress. If so, then we’re going to be waiting around for a long time for that to happen (and I do admire those like yourself who are willing to speak on the topic and change public opinion). Cities Strong is a movement that is seeking to proactively tear down barriers and improve municipal governments without bullying them into submission. How can cities share services, police departments, amenities, etc to cut costs and simultaneously improve quality of life? Small steps toward big goals. This seems to be what the Cities Strong movement is seeking to accomplish although most attention has been given to their unwillingness to dissolve.

    Until St. Louis can finally establish a more consolidated government, groups that work to improve municipal functioning are VITAL to making progress. When you tell an entire community that their local government is hurting the region, they will most likely become defensive and I do not blame them for that. This only stalls progress.

    Groups like the 24:1 Initiative are having amazing success
    without a single merger. In addition to pooling resources and improving access
    to expertise, they are slowly breaking down municipal barriers.

    Do I believe St. Louis should have consolidated government?
    Yes.
    Do I believe that important steps can be made in the short
    term without consolidation?
    Absolutely. And these steps need to happen now.