Time for Ideas to Address St. Louis Region Fragmentation

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I attended a forum at UMSL called “If the City Reentering the County is the Solution, What’s the Problem?” The problem became clear to me at that forum- it’s low self-esteem.

That was 2011- long before our region made international news in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting. Since August 2014 we’ve learned how our most disadvantaged neighbors are treated by the fragmentation machine. Otherwise insolvent municipalities survived the recession through tickets and fees. They barely make payroll while the sleeping giant of mounting infrastructure liabilities grows.

Now the Rams are leaving. While I vehemently disagreed with the $100Ms in direct and indirect tax subsidies in excess of even what has become custom for the region, the deal was weaker because only the resources of 11% of the region were mustered.

Awareness of the problem is at an all-time high– too many horses pulling the cart in different directions, all needing to be fed. It’s time to put forth ideas to reform our governance system so that it works better for more of us, discuss, and evaluate them. Are we going to wait for the next shoe to drop before we do something about it? A major employer leaving? Another bad census?

The opposition says trying to do something about fragmentation is a futile distraction from focusing on our problems. I disagree. Fragmentation is the futile distraction. It allows us to leverage each other’s assets and avoid each other’s problems. It contributes to every problem and makes them harder to confront.

The McNarys put forth a borough idea last week. Three less dramatic changes would go a long way to strengthen St. Louis and have a better chance of happening. TIF reform, significant municipal consolidation and disincorporation, and the county annexing the city.

The granting of TIFs needs a more regional view. The Kroenkes of the world exploit fragmentation and the sales tax chase it promotes. In 2012 Sen. Scott Rupp and Rep. Anne Zerr introduced HB 1693 to make it harder for a municipality to override a county TIF commission’s denial. The legislature should revive and pass it.

Sen. Eric Schmitt’s SB 5 (and his follow on SB 572) capped the dollars from tickets and fees that helps prop up fragmentation. Let’s support anyone seeking consolidation and disincorporation among county municipalities. Rep Bob Burns’s HB 1686 would make disincorporation easier.

The county should annex the city while it remains a municipality. The two biggest issues for the city are crime and schools. Neither is helped by the city being its own county. The county would do the county roles for city residents and they would pay county taxes. The Public Health departments should combine too. Whether the county comes out ahead depends upon how efficiently it can deliver those services to city residents. The county council should add two seats to represent city residents until reapportionment occurs after the next census. While this only rids the region of one of its numerous governments, it removes the biggest psychological hurdle.

County annexation of the city can occur via a state-wide amendment vote put on the ballot by the legislature or initiative petition or locally via the Board of Freeholders. The BoF is a mechanism designed by 19th century elites for elites. It’s been litigated to death in the past and will again if tried. An amendment can accomplish annexation, get rid of the BoF process, and preserve the extraordinary flexibility in organizing our local governance already in the constitution.

At that forum in 2011 an audience member joked that this was this generation’s opportunity to fail at this issue. Is that the legacy we want to pass to future generations of St. Louisans, failure? We don’t tell the entrepreneurs creating start-ups to give up in the face of defeat. Future success requires shedding the baggage of the past. The world isn’t waiting around for us.

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  • The public health departments keep being brought up as something that should be merged- but they’re something that can’t, without a change in state law, because cities of our size are required to have a separate public health department. So we need another state law change.

    • Alex Ihnen

      I take your point, but we need a lot of state laws changed. The fact a state law would need changed is not a good reason to not have a conversation about what should be done.

    • rgbose

      I had heard that cities with more than 80k people had the option of having one. Is that incorrect? Can you point to the statute?

      Regardless under the Board of Freeholders or an amendment the county can take over the city’s health dept.

  • John R

    So when can the public expect something specific to vote on? At some point proponents like Better Together have to move on from reports, etc. to putting a concrete proposal on the ballot. Looks like nothing for 2016; so any idea on when that can be expected?

    • rgbose

      2018 or 2020. Better Together won’t be working to put anything on the ballot. They are a 501c3. St. Louis Strong intends to. It is a 501c4. It needs lots of money to do it. please donate if you can and encourage others to do so. http://www.stlstrong1764.org

      In the meantime, we can encourage the legislature to pass the bills mentioned above. Also if anyone attempts to disincorporate their town, there would be opportunities to help there.

      • John R

        Thanks for the info

  • Ian Wrobel

    I agree with everyone who has commented on this discussion. I am going to go on record saying that I am a big supporter of the McNary borough idea that would merge St. Louis City into the county and disincorporate all municipalities and consolidate the police and fire departments from 90 to seven departments each. However, in my opinion, instead of boroughs, we should have seven cities with a single fire and police department. There are going to be things that need to be discussed over time, of course, but incremental changes can go a long way. You also have to understand that Chesterfield, Kirkwood, Webster Groves, Clayton, and maybe to some degree Florissant, are the major power players in our region. We must gain their support of this proposal before anything can move forward.

    • rgbose

      Chesterfield is a hard nut to crack. Their citizens aren’t a monolith of course, but they current;y enjoy no muni property tax thanks to shoppers from elsewhere. Saying Crestwood and St. Ann used to be in the same situation doesn’t seem to gain traction. What arguments would you make to them?

      • Ian Wrobel

        Chesterfield may not have a municipal property tax as you suggest but they currently pay $12 million annually in tax revenue to cities such as St. Ann, Crestwood, Wildwood, and many other municipalities with low tax revenue due to the county tax pool that was put into force when Chesterfield, and Maryland Heights were incorporated in 1989 and 1985 respectively. My argument to Crestwood and St. Ann is this: although they used to be power players with large tax revenue base from their respective shopping outlets, Crestwood Mall and Northwest Plaza respectively, they have since been crippled by the closures of their revenue base and they are currently receiving tax revenue from Chesterfield, thus making Chesterfield one of the most powerful cities in the county. It is all about tax revenue at this point in my opinion.

        • rgbose

          Chesterfield doesn’t pay $12M, shoppers do.

          • Ian Wrobel

            You are correct. I misspoke. However, Chesterfield believes that $12M should be theirs. Do you not think that if Crestwood or St. Ann had that same issue that they would want the same thing as Chesterfield?

          • rgbose

            Yes. If you’re only concerned about Chesterfield and believe what’s going on outside of it has little bearing on how things are going inside, it makes sense to oppose gov’t restructuring. This brings me back to my original question- How do you convince more people otherwise?

          • Ian Wrobel

            Well at the moment it is impossible to convince more people. Their is only a small percentage of people who are likeminded and think this plan has any traction. Everyone else on the other hand does not want anything to do with consolidating their cities with other cities.

          • rgbose

            I think there’s a lot of open-minded folks out there. 2000-2010 440,000 moved into St. Louis County and 492,000 moved out (A net loss of $3.5B in annual income earned, btw). With that amount of churn, there are a lot relatively new people to reach. Plenty already convinced there’s problem. Plenty who think we should do something about. Even those who have lived here all their lives like caller Steve from Webster Groves https://soundcloud.com/st-louis-strong/kmox-sports-open-line-with-chris-hrabe?platform=hootsuite

            Luckily a vote doesn’t have to be unanimous. Certainly those who make a good living from the fragmentation industry won’t ever be convinced.

        • Matt Conley

          Ian

  • Kimberly R Hampton

    Well…I’ll be the naysayer and say that all of these plans will change nothing. Not even the municipal fines change (which I support) because much of this is about enforcement, not just the actual fine/fee schedule. Poorer and/or minority communities are over-enforced, which I doubt will change.

    The other thing that strikes me about all the plans is that they are more about HOW St. Louis and the region are perceived as opposed to changing actions. None of these changes will stop the over-enforcement of codes where they happen; they will just change how the numbers are crunched and how the region’s stats look. None of these changes will stop the steering (in housing) that occurs in the region. None of these changes will change the school suspension/expulsion disparity in the region. The list goes on.

    As long as people are more worried about how things in StL LOOK rather than changing WHAT actually happens, nothing will change.

    • rgbose

      I think the disincorporation of municipalities that are over-enforcing to generate money to perpetuate themselves gets rid of over-enforcement.

      Steering is a realtor problem. Zoning and other tactics to keep unwanted people out is a municipal thing alleviated by a declining number of them.

      School districts are separate from municipalities.

      • Kimberly R Hampton

        We’ll agree to disagree here. As the Missouri AG’s traffic stop report shows, Ladue is just as bad as munis in North County. And nobody is talking about disincorporating Ladue. Everybody is talking about disincorporating North County munis.

        • Adam

          Kimberly, I haven’t read the report, but do you mean that Ladue makes traffic stops with the same frequency, that they ticket with the same frequency, or that a significant portion of their budget comes from ticketing? I suspect the difference is that ticketing doesn’t provide 30% of their operating budget, whereas in many N. County munis it does. Not saying that legitimizes the practice in Ladue’s case, but a muni that can’t survive without preying on it’s citizens seems to have little reason to exist IMO.

          • Kimberly R Hampton

            I’m saying that the frequency, and who they stop, is remarkably similar in Ladue to what’s happening in North County. Difference is that Ladue has other streams of revenue.
            I am not saying that a muni should prey on its citizens. And I support muni court reform and the fee/fine schedule change. I’m just worried that for the people who are most marginalized in this region, all the plans for consolidation/reunification/reintegration will do little to change the lived experiences of them

          • Adam

            I see your point that consolidation is being oversold as a cure for our regional discrimination. I’d say that’s a valid concern. But while consolidation may not solve the discrimination problem, I don’t see how it would make it any worse, either. Meanwhile it will address a number of other important issues like allocation of resources and cooperational dysfunction. If consolidation doesn’t alleviate the discrimination, then we’ll have to address it in a more targeted way. Definitely.

          • Jordan Harrison

            Kimberly,

            You said: “for the people who are most marginalized in this region, all the plans for consolidation/reunification/reintegration will do little to change the lived experiences of them”

            I believe you are making a very valid point, and none of these plans are directly intended to address the racial issues in St. Louis, as much as they are the economic ones.

            The way I see it, a consolidation effort will show the world that St. Louis is really a good place to live and do business, therefore attracting people and jobs to the area over time. The more people that come, the more diverse ideas and mindset come to the region. Also, the newly formed consolidated city would ideally have greater revenue to spend on education and cultural events in order to break down barriers, and overall allow greater integration of the already segregated neighborhoods. The fact that some North County villages were merely established as a means to greater segregation in another era suggests reason to remove those borders. This doesn’t mean the police will suddenly be less biased, but hopefully a centralized police dept. will have greater accountability and oversight.

          • Kimberly R Hampton

            “Also, the newly formed consolidated city would ideally have greater
            revenue to spend on education and cultural events in order to break down
            barriers, and overall allow greater integration of the already
            segregated neighborhoods.”

            Are you a native of St. Louis? The history of school desegregation in this region shows that the ideal never happens.

          • Jordan Harrison

            Kimberly, the desegregation programs attempted in the past were no where near full consolidation of the schools. It has been proposed, however, you can read about it here:

            http://www.stltoday.com/news/opinion/columns/the-platform/editorial-time-for-the-spainhower-solution-unify-st-louis-schools/article_93dee4a2-f573-5a6e-919d-c97e7942f703.html

            Do you have an alternative plan in mind? The problems in North/City & county are largely socio-economic, and therefore, require a solution focused on fixing schools, improving opportunities, and lowering crime.

          • Kimberly R Hampton

            I don’t pretend to have the solution(s). But I believe that history
            matters. And we cannot continue to ignore the history of the region (and
            state) or pretend it didn’t happen. Decisions were made that cannot be
            undone. We may be able to mitigate some of the affects/effects, but the damage
            happened.

            Any consolidation of schools would require action on the state level. There has never been an appetite for this at any level of the state. This is why history matters. History shows us that Missouri had to be sued to desegregate and then the state (let’s not forget Jay Nixon’s role in this as Attorney General) sued to end it. And when the US Supreme Court said that Louisville,KY had to end their deseg program, Missouri had even more reason to do nothing but maintain the status quo. Or, if one wants to look at more recent history, let’s look at what happened when Normandy and Riverview Gardens students were eligible for transfer. Remember the uproar in school districts that were THINKING about taking in these children (before remembering the reaction of people in the districts that did take them in). So is consolidation really the answer? If one looks at heavily racially segregated cities, the results of consolidation tend to be the rise of private schools. Again…history.

          • Jordan Harrison

            Yes, St. Louis is rooted in its history and nativism, unsurprising then that it’s struggling so much today. Just because something hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it’s impossible. My hope is that these issues will come to the ballot to let the people lawfully decide. Your comment about the consolidated schools in the country intrigued me though, FYI, here are the largest school districts in the US:

            New York City Department of Education
            Los Angeles Unified School District
            Chicago Public Schools
            Miami-Dade County Public Schools
            Clark County (Las Vegas) School District
            Broward County (Fort Lauderdale) Public Schools
            Houston Independent School District
            Hillsborough County (Tampa) Public Schools
            Hawaiʻi Department of Education
            Orange County (Orlando) Public Schools

            Curiously, these areas are racially diverse, several more so than St. Louis, yet also thriving. Isn’t that interesting?

          • Kimberly R Hampton

            As many recent reports have shown, NYC has the most racially segregated schools in the country. (And New York State is the most racially segregated when it comes to schools)
            Chicago…ah, Chicago. One of the most racially segregated cities in the country and one of the most segregated school systems in the country.

            If you look at the cities/regions on your list, many (if not all) of their school districts are majority minority. [I don’t know enough about Hawai’i schools to comment] And you will see that the majority of the white students in those regions go to suburban, majority white public schools or they go to private schools. This is not new. After Brown v. Board, entire school systems shut down across the South so they wouldn’t have to integrate. At the same time they were building segregated private schools. When those districts re-opened, all the white students were pulled out of the public schools and placed in private schools.

            Just because a city is racially diverse and “thriving” doesn’t mean that it’s thriving for everybody. History shows us that, more than likely, it is thriving because a group is being deliberately left out.

          • Jordan Harrison

            The point is that most of these cities are doing much better economically than STL, which means better for everyone. I’m not saying poverty doesn’t exist, but it is a problem that at least other cities are TRYING to tackle. Granted Chicago is not the best example of deseg. The rest of the cities mentioned are doing quite well. I think you are turning this into an argument about race and I am not interested in a discussion about racial issues. I am talking socio economic improvement that will translate to ALL races.

          • Kimberly R Hampton

            “The point is that most of these cities are doing much better economically than STL, which means better for everyone.”
            “I am talking socio-economic improvement that will translate to ALL races.”

            This is where we differ…most of these cities aren’t doing better for everybody economically. They are doing it for some. There’s a reason I keep the focus on race; because even when you control for class, race determines a lot of things in StL and the cities you bring up. If you don’t believe that, then go look up the black college graduate unemployment rate in those cities. If we’re talking about socioeconomic integration, but overlook the fact that there are racial dimensions of it, then it will continue to be a less meaningful conversation.

        • rgbose

          The McNarys’ borough idea would result in the disincorporation Ladue or at least a police department that serves a larger area.

          • Kimberly R Hampton

            And my larger point still holds. Who gets screwed will not change under the sublimation of the Ladue police into some larger regional/borough department. That’s why the AG’s report is so important. It shows that regardless of how many streams of income a muni has, certain people have already been marked for over-enforcement. This won’t change under a borough plan.

          • rgbose

            What do you think would have a positive impact?

          • Kimberly R Hampton

            I haven’t ignored this question. Just trying to think of an answer that doesn’t involve blowing the whole thing up and starting from scratch.

          • rgbose

            No worries, it’s a tough question. Wanting to start from scratch is not an unreasonable position, IMO.

        • matimal

          They’re talking about it because north county munis have such small tax bases. They can’t justify their existence financially.

          • Kimberly R Hampton

            oh I know what they’re talking about North County. So let’s look at the implications here. What this says is that munis that have other sources of revenue can continue to screw/over-enforce certain populations because they have other sources of revenue.

            I’m just asking for a little honesty. Nobody is talking about changing what really goes on in this region. What all these plans talk about is changing the actors who do it.

          • matimal

            Yes, if you can pay your own way, you have power not available to those who can’t. I can’t understand why this would be surprising to anyone who’s even remotely paying attention.

          • Kimberly R Hampton

            I’m not disagreeing with what you are saying. I’m saying that you are missing my point.
            Ladue will continue to do what North County munis do to the exact same people. Nobody is talking about disincorporating Ladue.
            So consolidation/reintegration/reunification people need to tell the truth about this. This has never been about changing what actually happens in the St. Louis region, it’s about eliminating some of the actors but leaving the action the same.

          • matimal

            I understand completely. Ladue can do the same as much poorer munis because it’s residents have money and power that those in north county munis don’t. It’s residents can give money to candidates and lobby legislators to prevent actions that would hurt it’s financial options. North County residents can’t afford to do that. If you want to change what actually happens in the St. Louis region, you must change how public money, and thus power, is distributed.

          • Adam

            It has more to do with income disparity than with public money. The majority of the public money follows the wealthy.

          • matimal

            Income disparity is CAUSED by the disparity in public money to a large degree.

          • Adam

            To some degree the way in which public money is spent exacerbates the disparity, but income disparity is primarily caused by multi-generational poverty. The wealthy have greater influence than the poor over where the public money goes—you basically said that yourself not two comments ago—but the disparity that allows that imbalance preexists the spending of public money on neighborhood beautification, stadiums, etc.

          • matimal

            ..and multigenerational poverty is in turn reinforced by the vastly unequal distribution of public spending. Look back through family histories and you’ll see that one government backed mortgage, one mortgage interest deduction, or location next to one park, highway, or other publicly built asset made the difference between the family’s move into the middle class or into poverty. The market doesn’t somehow exist outside of the rest of society. It’s interwoven into the rest of society.

          • Adam

            “reinforced by” =/= “CAUSED by … to a large degree”. all your own words. and before this becomes a typical, unremitting, circular matimal argument, i’m out.

          • matimal

            “out” of what? Much of life IS in fact woven together in complex ways that can’t really be separated. That’s why some things persist for so long. There is often little difference between “reinforced by” and “caused by.”

        • Matt Conley

          As is St. Charles City in St. Charles County… no one is saying that they need to be merged.

  • librarian

    Merge the St. Louis Public Library with the St. Louis County Library and use one card to rule them all. The advantages of scale would be immense.

    • kjohnson04

      Go ahead and merge the Municipal Library Consortium in as well. I like your thinking.

      • AW

        The Municipal Library Consortium is a joke. I’m a county resident (Webster). Why can I not just use the county library? It’s much better.

        • kjohnson04

          Agreed. I have three library cards for the essentially the same city/county. In the city, by the way.

    • matimal

      This is how metro defragmentation will happen, bit by bit, issue by issue. Grand visions of unitary government will create massive opposition and fail. Narrow, specific, procedural sharing of particular services are the only way to stitch St. Louis together. It will all have to happen through the backdoor.

      • tbatts666

        I love the idea of incremental unification. That’s genius.

        Some issues are best solved at a hyperlocal level, others at a regional level. An incremental approach would help make smarter unification moves.

      • Jordan Harrison

        Agreed that incremental consolidation may be more easily accepted by county residents. IMO, the most important things to work on first are the police and educational systems.