Better Together begins studies of collaboration by city, county

Group plans public sessions for input on collaboration in six areas

By Gloria Lloyd

A well-funded nonprofit organization is kicking off an initiative that looks like a potential route to a city-county merger, but County Executive Charlie Dooley said the group is simply studying ways the city and county might collaborate.

“I cannot talk about (the city-county merger) because there is no city-county merger,” Dooley told the Call. “For the next 16 months, we will be gathering data and information about six factors in the region, and that’s all it is. We’ve said on numerous occasions, it’s not unifying the city and the county, it’s not the city re-entering the county, it’s not a merger, it has nothing to do with that.”

At a kickoff event Nov. 19 on the city-county border with Dooley and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, nonprofit Better Together announced six studies on potential areas the city and county might be able to merge — public finance, public safety, public health, parks and recreation, infrastructure and administration and economic development. Over the next 16 months, the group plans to hold public sessions to learn what city and county residents think about potential collaboration in these areas.

The studies are a continuation of ongoing efforts by city and county officials to merge some of the specialized areas in which city and county operations overlap, including police bomb squads and helicopters, tourism bureaus and economic development organizations.

Slay and Dooley sit on the board of Better Together, which is primarily funded by the Missouri Council for a Better Economy, whose sole donor is billionaire and political activist Rex Sinquefield.

At the kickoff event, Dooley emphasized that a city-county merger could only happen through direct feedback from residents, including a vote.

“I will tell you this, Mayor Slay and County Executive Dooley can’t make any decisions about this region without the vote of the people of this region,” he said. “That is going to be the key factor.”

Combining operations in certain areas makes sense, said Dooley, pointing to the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District as a notable example of longstanding collaboration that already exists in the region.

People outside St. Louis have no concept of any city-county divide, he added.

“You live in Town and Country, Northwoods, Florissant — it makes no difference,” he said. “When you leave the St. Louis region, people will tell you you’re from St. Louis. That is a fact.”

The city-county merger has been an ongoing issue in the region since 1844, when county residents outside the city voted that they wanted to keep the city — then the county’s largest municipality — in the county. For reasons including discontent with double taxation, city residents voted in 1876 to split from the county.

County voters opposed the move, but the “Great Divorce” followed in 1877.

At the time of the split, the city had 350,000 residents while the county, then a rural area, had 30,000. As of the 2010 census, however, the population of the city has gone down to 318,000 residents, while the county’s population has grown to roughly 1 million.

Previous merger efforts failed in 1924 and 1962, this time with residents from the growing county opposed. In Dooley’s last election campaign, Republican Bill Corrigan made the city-county merger a primary issue, eventually losing to Dooley by only 4 percentage points.

When 6th District County Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, kicked off his campaign against Dooley for county executive, he said he would have to consider what is in the best interests of county residents if he is elected next year.

“There are some studies that are currently being conducted, and I am very, very much open to looking at those studies and studying the facts and figures that result from those studies,” he said. “But I think at this point, it’s a little premature to make some kind of endorsement … Particularly when there hasn’t been one particular plan that’s been set out. And it’s a matter of such importance that I really don’t want to theorize or hypothesize.”

Rep. Marsha Haefner, R-Oakville, speculated at her last town-hall meeting in October that south county opposition to any potential merger might fuel a budding effort by residents of Oakville to look into incorporating as a municipality or forming a separate county.

The first meeting of that committee is slated for 7 p.m. Dec. 9 at the Cliff Cave Branch County Library, 5430 Telegraph Road.