Thoughts on the Better Together plan – Part 3 – The Negatives

Thoughts on the Better Together plan – Part 3 – The Negatives

Editor’s Note – This piece originally appeared on Mark’s St. Louis City Talk on March 2,, 2019

I shared my thoughts on Better Together just before they released the plan to the public, right after, then worked through some positives of the proposal, now it’s time for the negatives.

Some aspects of the plan range from less than palatable to total non-starters for my personal vote in November, 2020:

  1. School funding and property tax rates are not addressed. What are the things that people from the suburbs say when they diss St. Louis while explaining why they would never live in the city? Crime and schools. Whether real or not, this is the perception people have. These two staid narratives need to be addressed with any plan for a merge. Local school districts are important as the schools and eduction styles and priorities should reflect the people who choose to live around them. But, we need the funding for schools to be the same. Let the local districts spend the money and invest in their schools in the way the hyper-local district determines. There will still be inequities with this plan. A major miss. We need a single pool of money for the schools that is equally distributed to all the school districts within the new St. Louis. Let the local districts sink or swim from there, but we need to take funding out of the equation.
  2. The report itself seemed to name check several sources in passing without really developing much substance from those citations in their actions. For instance, Colin Gordon’s Mapping Decline and the We Live Here podcast were merely mentioned, but never really substantiated anything that those works do best. It felt like someone name checking a band they’ve never really heard or they are trying to impress a certain segment of the population who truly is tuned in to St. Louis history and analyses. This was a toss of the bone without any meat. A missed opportunity….a tangential name dropping.
  3. Steve Stenger as the boss? No. Just no. We need to elect that person out of the gate. This guy is not fit for speaking for what we now call St. Louis. I’m not sure he’s fit to run the suburb, but I’ll stay out of that, the electorate chose him. Yet, I’ve spoken to civic-minded people in the suburbs who can’t stand this guy. Main reason? He doesn’t show up to meetings and can’t gain consensus. St. Louis is still the biggest city in the region. Let us vote on this position sooner than later. We need someone with some urban planning chops.
  4. The state vote is a bit of a bitter pill to swallow. Imagine a situation where the St. Louis electorate marginally votes for the proposal, St. Louis County votes no…and the state votes yes. The county folk are gonna be obstructionist from the get go. Or conversely, imagine a result where St. Louis and the suburbs in the County overwhelmingly vote yes and the state votes no in a “that’s their problem not ours” dismissive no vote? Well that would suck. Either way, I think the only chance to make change in this region is by someone else stepping in. I just don’t see the suburbs wanting anything to do with sharing or thinking as a whole. I hope I’m wrong. The state wide vote will be used over and over again by the naysayers to squelch the plan.
  5. I hate the term “Metro City”. Call it St. Louis or nothing at all. Parochialism is a problem in these parts. Taking care of #1 and shoving all the problems away and isolating the others has been a core part of the culture. If you give someone the opportunity to make “me” decisions and not “we” decisions, I think I know what the monied will pick. We need to call everyone a St. Louisan from the current St. Louis to Chesterfield. We need to think as one entity, the goofy Metro City moniker seems like a pandering. Are we St. Louis or not? Are we not only as strong as our weakest link? Are the 88 cities in the suburbs ready to fully claim St. Louis as their home or place of business? Now’s the chance to decide. Scrap the “Metro City” talk and just say one “St. Louis”.
  6. Horrible job by BT in getting the word out and getting community input. I look to Great Rivers Greenway as a model example of how to communicate and gather and incorporate community feedback. I’ll even point to some local politicians in my neck of the woods who have used “participatory budgeting” to help drive spending in their wards. This is good community building. This plan certainly seemed to be developed in a vacuum. The report did little to convince me otherwise. They kept a low profile to get what their funders want, no 1% earnings tax in St. Louis and less courts and police departments in the county. I’ve spoken to several middle to upper middle class, informed, intelligent people who live in the County about their thoughts on the plan. Few to no one have heard of it. When I give the high level summary, they aren’t impressed.
  7. Why not have a single fire department? Another missed opportunity. The report basically said, it’s too complicated, it’s too hard, there is too much disparity. Lame. Why should we have different funding mechanisms and levels of service? One city, one fire department. One level of service. They say market forces and community desires will eventually make the fire departments efficient. Um, not good enough. From the report: “Better Together spent nearly a year meeting with representatives of various fire protection districts and labor leaders in an effort to design a new fire protection scheme for the entirety of St. Louis City and St. Louis County. Fire protection services in the region are unique in the landscape of their delivery. Many residents receive service from fire protection districts that cross municipal boundaries and are funded by property taxes. Others receive service through municipal fire departments. Some fire departments also offer emergency medical services and many of their firefighters are trained to deliver such services, while other jurisdictions contract with private companies for EMS. This complicated landscape, paired with a greater disparity in employee pay and benefits than is found in other service areas, ultimately made the creation of a new, single fire department unrealistic to recommend at present.”
  8. The subjective fear of suburbanization of St. Louis. Fear of the unknown. I know I said I was going to break this down using facts from the report, but here’s the thing I can’t shake. Drive around St. Louis County. Look at Clayton vs. DT St. Louis. Anyone interested in good urban design, densely built cities, beautiful architecture, sensitive infill, mixed uses, diverse housing stock, pedestrian friendly, traffic calming, healthy big cities will not be impressed with the County vibe. I’m terrified that if the Metro Mayor and the 33 member metro council will swing the vote toward a blow St. Louis up and start all over mentality. Think the suburbanite Paul McKee and his masterplan for North City. What if the libraries, fire houses, etc all get deemed as “out dated”, leveled and made to look like the ones in the suburbs? St. Louis County is a mess. A place I don’t really want to live. St. Louis has enough old city charm to make me want to stay. If that is diluted, it’ll weaken us. But, if the resources are pooled and the city is recognized as a place to elevate and invest in preservation and smart urban planning, I’m in. The suburban ways can easily be maintained in what is now the County. But, will the city core be diluted and destroyed in favor of some Clayton-like, Charlotte-ike, Phoenix-like dreamed vision? County forces have long dealt with the city in a ham-fisted, insensitive, destructive way for decades. Will local control be so diluted that we who want to live in a “big city” get overwhelmed with suburban/sprawl/parking first development and ideation? Who knows, but I can’t shake this fear. And, the report does nothing to ease this fear.

But, this is the plan we have on the table. Will BT tweak the final plan based on community input after we’ve finally had a chance to read the proposal? I doubt it. They are getting paid to make it so, and this is their best chance to get it passed. I don’t think they want to get bogged down in community meetings. Think of the PR. Think of the pitchforks and torches that could be raised in the suburbs. Put yourself in their shoes. They are trying to make real change.

Now you have to ask yourself, is this plan, with plenty of unknowns worth shaking up the region. Or is a no vote a nod to the status quo?

I am leaning toward the positives out weighing the negatives. When I vote, I try to think of the collective not just my needs. This is not an easy one.


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