County citizens not on hook for city’s debts in event of a merger, memorandum says

Merger effort would benefit Oakville county, leaders say

By Gloria Lloyd

When it recently released its first of six studies on a city-county merger, Better Together also released a memo from an attorney informing county residents that they will not be on the hook for any city debts in the event of a merger.

In February, Better Together released the first of six studies it is conducting on how governments operate in St. Louis and St. Louis County.

The nonprofit organization says it takes no position for or against a city-county merger.

Under the direction of Executive Director Bob Baer, of Sunset Hills, Better Together posted the budgets, salaries and operating costs of the 90 cities and 23 fire districts in St. Louis County and the city of St. Louis in a searchable database on its website.

Also posted was a nonbinding memo from law firm Polsinelli PC that the county would not be responsible for any debts from the city if the city entered the county as a municipality.

Compiling the public data, Better Together found that the 115 local governments cost the 1.3 million residents of the city and county $2 billion a year, collected through $1.6 billion in taxes and $400 million in fees. The data does not include any school district budgets or salaries.

In a memo designed to allay fears that a city-county merger could be disastrous to county residents’ finances due to the city’s pension obligations and other debts, attorneys Bill Kuehling and Kenny Hulshof of Polsinelli PC wrote that if the city joined the county as a municipality, no other county residents would be responsible for the city’s debts, just as residents and the county itself are not responsible for pensions and other obligations from a county municipality now — and even if the city went bankrupt.

No state or federal law or court decision would give any precedent for the county having to pay the city’s debts, and neither the state nor the county would have to pay, according to the memo.

At the same time as the release of the first study, a group of self-described “thought leaders” from the region, including St. Louis Blues owner Tom Stillman and Delmar Loop developer Joe Edwards, also kicked off another city-county effort, UnifySTL, which hopes to gather 100,000 signatures in support of a city-county merger — or, as some of its proponents are referring to it, a city-county reunion.

The website of a related group, STL World Class City, notes that if the city and county fully merged, St. Louis would become the eighth-largest city in the United States. The group wants the county to extend its boundaries to include St. Louis as a municipality within the county, have the county take over the city’s existing operations, eliminate municipal governments within the county and elect a new “county mayor,” according to its mission statement.

An alternative scenario the group also supports is to just admit the city as a municipality in the county, without abolishing existing cities.

With many county residents convinced that a merger is being planned by leaders in the St. Louis region behind the scenes, Crestwood resident Jennifer Bird has formed the first organization, Common Sense for St. Louis, that formally opposes any type of city-county merger. Bird, a Republican, filed last week for the 5th District County Council seat currently held by Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights.

Although the city and county have merged some of their operations over the past few years, including economic development and police SWAT teams, a full merger would require either a statewide or countywide vote.

One of the plans theorized for a merger would include abolishing current cities within the county, an idea some city officials have protested.

When the Green Park Board of Aldermen voted to purchase its City Hall building for $1.39 million in January, Ward 1 Alderman Tony Pousosa was opposed. He suggested that the city might need to save its reserve funds for legal fees and “protecting the integrity of the municipality as a whole.”

Pousosa filed last week for the Republican primary for the county executive’s seat.

Also filing was Matt Pirrello, who serves on the Ellisville City Council.

“We will be sucked up in that hole, and I think Tony is concerned about saving as much money to fight this as possible,” Green Park Mayor Bob Reinagel said. “Well, as I said, we are in fiscally very good shape. We will be one of many municipalities fighting this. If we have to take every cent we have and put it into this battle, we’ve lost the battle. Right now, we don’t know what we’re fighting.”

At the second meeting earlier this month of a group of residents looking at incorporating Oakville or breaking off into a new county, Citizens for Responsive Government, group members said they believe their effort will gain more supporters down the line, as people start thinking a merger is underway.

“They just want one government,” said Lemay Township Republican Chairman Alan Leaderbrand of the merger proponents’ position at the Feb. 13 meeting of the Oakville group.

Steering committee member Rep. Marsha Haefner, R-Oakville, said the effects of a city-county merger are difficult to predict, especially without proponents uniting under one clear-cut plan that could be studied for its effects.

“There’s just too many ‘what-ifs’ and ‘what happens,'” she said. “I find it interesting that the people involved in (supporting) this deny it.”

Athough Haefner said she has received some negative comments from residents against a new county, she has also received many comments in support of the group’s efforts to research its options for representation.

In the end, everyone will be able to make their voices heard, she added, since there would be a public vote by Oakville residents no matter which avenue the committee decides to pursue.