St. Louis City and County could merge by a vote on a statewide ballot. Jeff Roberson/AP

A measure to consolidate St. Louis City and County could go before Missouri voters as soon as 2020. But St. Louisans are mixed on what that means.

On Monday, the St. Louis think tank Better Together unveiled a formal proposal to combine the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County in a new type of local government for Missouri: a metropolitan city. Governed by an elected “Metro Mayor” and a 33‑member council, the new Metro City of St. Louis would have sweeping powers to enact new laws, tax residents, and oversee law enforcement, justice, planning, zoning, and economic development. This proposal, which would be decided by voters across Missouri, would essentially do away with the present government of the City of St. Louis, including the city’s 29-member Board of Aldermen and the office of Mayor Lyda Krewson.

Such a consolidation would overnight transform St. Louis into the 10th largest city in the U.S., with 1.3 million people—larger than San Jose and right behind Dallas.

The idea is rekindling a longstanding debate in several cities that are pondering the virtues and potential pitfalls of joining up with their surrounding counties. There have been about 40 city-county mergers in the U.S.; in recent decades, major examples include Nashville (1962), Indianapolis (1970), and Louisville (2003). They’re rare because they’re difficult to pull off: Voters may be skeptical of the money-saving arguments for consolidation and susceptible to fears over changing borders between segregated communities. Louisville only got their union done on the fourth try.

Battle lines are already being drawn in St. Louis. Some foes of the idea are concerned that a merger would dilute local African American political power. Others fret that the planned statewide vote will have the fates of urban and suburban residents dictated by rural voters. But proponents insist that consolidation would extend the reach of economic development to North County, expanding the areas where opportunity is currently concentrated. And while Better Together’s research started before the climactic protests in Ferguson, soul-searching in St. Louis since then only lends credence to the arguments for a city-county merger, supporters say.

“Why does a region with world-class resources struggle to thrive and compete in a global economy?” Better Together’s researchers asked in a 2017 report. “The answer lies in St. Louis’ outdated and obsolete fragmented structure. If St. Louis is to grow and prosper, this structure must be addressed.”

One of the most significant structural changes would involve the region’s criminal justice system—a target for reformers since protests erupted in Ferguson in 2014. A single police force and court system would form the backbone of the Metro City’s justice system. St. Louis County’s 88 municipalities, from wealthy Ladue to resource-deprived Normandy, would continue to exist, but they would be reclassified as “municipal districts,” forfeiting significant taxing powers and losing most of their influence over economic development. School districts across the region would be untouched.

The proposed changes would require amending Missouri’s constitution, so Better Together—which is backed by Mayor Krewson and St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, plus an array of deep-pocketed business executives—plans an initiative petition to put its proposal on a statewide ballot in November 2020. If voters approve the plan, a two-year transition period would begin in 2021, with the new Metro City government fully in place by 2023.

The effort may have been inspired by recent events and concerns, but it’s hardly the first time consolidation has been attempted: The most recent public vote over merging St. Louis City and County happened all the way back in 1962. Should such a merger succeed, it would be among the most ambitious in modern U.S. history, due the size of the populations involved—about 300,000 residents in the city and 1 million in the county—and because it would attempt to correct the region’s extreme fragmentation (some would call it tribalism), which can befuddle visitors and transplants.

Apart from the puzzle of its municipal boundaries, which range from villages with a few dozen people to full-service cities with 40,000 or more residents, St. Louis County comprises more than 50 police departments, about 80 municipal courts, and 52,000 pages of local government ordinances. Better Together blames this state of affairs for a host of regional problems, including excessive public spending, poor municipal credit ratings, fierce competition for sales tax dollars, and a patchwork of local courts in St. Louis County that are primarily used not to render justice, but to generate revenue from things like traffic stops and fines for overgrown grass. This last charge is particularly stinging in the aftermath of the Ferguson protests, since those arrested by police and trapped in the court system are often poor and African American.

The roots of this fragmentation go back to 1876, when St. Louis City and County separated in what is known locally as the Great Divorce. Since 1950, St. Louis City has lost thousands of jobs and more than 60 percent of its population. The drop has plateaued in recent years, and the population now stands at about 308,000 people. Today, tax revenue is flat, race relations remain fraught, and thousands of vacant buildings litter the city, especially on the impoverished north side. Treasurer Tishaura Jones said recently on Twitter that St. Louis is “a recession away from bankruptcy.”

Yet there are signs that the city, not the county, is on the cusp of an upturn. Downtown’s Gateway Arch National Park sparkles after a $380 million makeover. City building permits had a record year in 2018, and the area surrounding Cortex (an urban tech and bioscience hub) is studded with construction cranes while commanding some of the region’s highest office rents. The local restaurant scene is winning national praise. The challenge for Krewson and other city leaders is to turn these individual milestones and data points into a sustained and inclusive growth trajectory for the city. A merger with the county, which is in better financial shape, could help speed the city’s progress.

But consolidation faces steep obstacles. For starters, African-American leaders are already expressing concern that merger would dilute their political influence. Black residents comprise about 47 percent of the city’s current population, but unification with the larger, whiter St. Louis County would reduce that figure to 30 percent. Missouri State Senator Jamilah Nasheed, a candidate in the March Democratic primary for president of the Board of Aldermen, says any unification plan “will have to reduce crime, ensure minority representation is protected, and generate cost savings to pay for necessary city services” in order to win her support. (Better Together hopes its projections of substantial cost savings will play well with voters of all races across the region.)

Another source of friction is the planned statewide vote. One widespread local view is that citizens of St. Louis City and County should be the ones who decide what kind of government they have, not voters who live hundreds of miles away. Some have called for a clause in the statewide ballot petition specifying that the measure cannot pass unless it wins in both the city and the county. Better Together, however, says all that is needed is statewide yea, plain and simple. Privately, insiders at the organization say that they believe the measure has a decent chance of passing both the city and county, but they also acknowledge they’re more assured of victory at the state level. A statewide campaign will be more expensive for Better Together’s opponents to contest, and conservative-leaning voters in outstate Missouri could be more receptive to the idea that a city-county merger would save tax dollars.

To that end, trying to measure the impact of city-county mergers on economic health and inclusion in urban areas is difficult, since relatively few such mergers have occurred. Erika Poethig, vice president and chief innovation officer at the Urban Institute and one of the authors of the 2018 report Inclusive Recovery in U.S. Cities, looked at recently consolidated Louisville as a case study. She found that the city’s 2003 merger with surrounding Jefferson County coincided with “significant employment growth and rising median incomes” between 2000 and 2013, even after controlling for changing geographic borders.

In that same study, St. Louis City fared poorly, according to Urban’s assessment of inclusion and economic health. Between 2000 and 2013, the city plunged from 188th to 238th place in a ranking of 274 of the largest U.S. cities. Louisville, on the other hand, jumped 63 rankings.

“We do know that fragmentation contributes to greater inequality, so you could hypothesize that more unification contributes to greater inclusion and equality,” says Poethig, adding that data from school districts offer the best examples to support this. “If there’s anything I’ve learned about St. Louis, it’s that people identify more with their schools than they do their towns.”

The campaign to keep St. Louis separated has already begun. The Municipal League of Metro St. Louis, an advocacy group that counts most area municipalities (including St. Louis City) among its members, is adamantly opposed to a statewide vote. Last week it kicked off its own effort to assemble a local “Board of Freeholders” that could recommend more incremental reforms; those would be subject to a vote only in St. Louis City and County. It’s notable that both Krewson and Stenger, whose offices would be fundamentally reorganized under the proposal, broadly support Better Together’s efforts and stand by the merger initiative in particular.

“If an organization is putting this to a statewide vote, it means they can’t sell it to the people it’s affecting,” said Pat Kelly, the Municipal League’s executive director. “It’s not fair that somebody in Kansas City is going to be deciding on the kind of governmental structure I have to live under, when it doesn’t necessarily affect them.”

Kelly says that the theory that having fewer local governments removes barriers to economic growth is unproven, and he warns that a first step towards consolidation could have far-reaching consequences. “If this is successful, then what’s going to stop people from doing an initiative petition to consolidate school districts?”

Sentiments like these point to a long road ahead for those who believe that unified government would be a big step in the decades-long effort by St. Louis to regain its luster. School district consolidation could be another project at some point in the distant future, and for merger opponents that’s the inevitable end of a slippery slope. Better Together has pointedly avoided that often-contentious topic, knowing it would be a dealbreaker with a huge number of suburban voters.

Poethig suggests that St. Louisans who urge to merge should look for things that already unify the region, and build from there. “What are the things that bring people together, that they share in common? Any merger effort would need to start there,” she says. “Who goes to the parks? Are they racially inclusive spaces? Are they economically inclusive? Those are the kinds of things that I think are cultural indicators of whether a merger would be able to support any kind of inclusive growth effort. If you’re not already practicing that in some spaces, a merger is not going to help you solve for it.”

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