Muni League backs talks on city possibly re-entering county

Discussion just the first step of a thousand, Kelly asserts

By Gloria Lloyd

The Municipal League of Metro St. Louis is backing talks that could eventually lead to the city of St. Louis re-entering St. Louis County as its 91st municipality — the “first of a thousand steps” to making that happen, they say.

The mayors and city officials of county municipalities who com-prise the organization and voted yes — including Crestwood Mayor Gregg Roby — emphasized the move is not a step toward a city-county merger, although the vote comes on the heels of a series of studies on consolidating city and county services conducted by nonprofit organization Better Together.

“This is not a merger — there is no merger,” said Muni League Executive Director Pat Kelly, who is the former mayor of Brentwood, at the Oct. 27 meeting at Maplewood City Hall.

Although many of the mayors emphasized that the talks are just discussions with no time line, Muni League President Barry Glantz, the mayor of Creve Coeur, noted that now is the time for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay to use the political capital he has built up in more than a decade of running the city to secure its re-entry before he leaves office in April.

Kelly and the Muni League executive board believe that the move is necessary to advance economic development efforts in not just the region, but individual cities in St. Louis County. The chief obstacle to those efforts is St. Louis city’s continual ranking on lists of the “most dangerous cities” in the country, something that could be solved by rejoining the county because its crime statistics could be combined with St. Louis County, Kelly said.

The vote was not unanimous, but after a half-hour discussion with some mayors calling for greater cooperation with the larger neighbor to the east, some skeptical officials decided to allow the talks to go ahead.

Wildwood Mayor Jim Bowlin initially objected to the entire idea without an explicit statement from the League that the end goal was not a city-county merger, but in the end, he made the motion for the talks to move forward.

Slay and other officials support the initiative, the mayors said, but no one from the city attended the Muni League meeting.

The day after the vote, Slay tweeted, “I look forward to discussions with the Muni League re: a return of St. Louis to the county. It is a conversation I support.”

For the most part, county officials were an afterthought at the Muni League meeting, with Glantz alluding to them only to add to Bowlin’s motion that County Executive Steve Stenger should be brought in on the talks.

In a statement, Stenger said, “Crime in the city is a serious and real impediment to any consideration of bringing the city into the county as a municipality. Crime in the city must be addressed immediately, as it has become the single most significant problem affecting our region.”

Nearly all of the officials whom the head of the Muni League’s Re-Entry Committee, Frontenac Mayor Keith Krieg, said the committee talked to in the last few years to write its report recommending re-entry are no longer in city or county government or have moved on to different jobs — in two cases, working for Better Together.

The Muni League committee talked to former County Executive Charlie Dooley’s Chief Operating Officer Garry Earls, who was once asked to resign by then-6th District Councilman Stenger. The mayors also talked to former St. Louis Economic Development Partnership CEO Denny Coleman, who retired soon after Stenger took office.

At the time of the original talks, the county and city had not yet formally combined their economic development efforts.

From the city, the committee talked to Slay’s former Chief of Staff Jeff Rainford and former official Nancy Rice, who both now work for Better Together. From the state, they talked to former Missouri House Speaker John Diehl, who resigned after a scandal with an intern last year.

Firms move due to crime

In the 1980s, St. Louis had the most Fortune 500 companies per capita of any major city in the country with 23, but now it has just nine, Kelly said.

Just days before the Muni League vote, Town and Country-based Scottrade announced that it was being acquired by TD Ameritrade, a business move destined to cost the county another headquarters and another exodus of thousands of jobs.

And the reason behind that decline in headquarters and tax base is primarily crime, Krieg said.

But Roby disputed that, citing anecdotes recounted at the Southwest St. Louis County Economic Development Summit held the day before by the Crestwood-Sunset Hills Area Chamber of Commerce and the chambers of Kirkwood-Des Peres and Fenton.

“Companies are not leaving us just because it’s St. Louis, they’re leaving us because they can get workers cheaper in other states,” the Crestwood mayor said.

Roby also noted that the League should define what would be part of the talks, including ownership of Lambert St. Louis International Airport, which is in the county but is currently owned by the city.

The vote to give the talks the green light was not unanimous, with Ballwin Mayor Tim Pogue and Florissant Mayor Thomas Schneider saying the efforts seemed misguided and held no benefits to their cities.

“You’re just looking at skewing the numbers, you’re not solving the problem,” Pogue said about the crime statistics. “There’s still going to be the same number of assaults, murders, robberies. The crime needs to be the problem that you’re tackling, not how to get the city into the county. Just my opinion.”

Fribis opposes ‘merger’

Roby was the only south county mayor or city official to attend the meeting. Sunset Hills Mayor Pat Fribis had another commitment that night, but she said if she was present, she would have voted no since she opposes a city-county merger.

“I see it as a merger,” she said, and she is opposed to that idea altogether because it holds no benefits for cities like Sunset Hills. “I’m in favor of each community staying the way it is. I like the uniqueness of each community the way we have it, and each community having their own authority to have their own police departments and their own identities.”

The mayors in favor of the proposal emphasized to any skeptics that the proposal was just a discussion, with no plan yet and no details on how a re-entry might work.

Ultimately, the decision is up to the citizens of the county and city, who would have to vote on any proposal, Kelly said.

“This would be the first step in a thousand steps,” he said.