An Oakville steering committee met for the first time last week and decided on a name and an initial game plan to kick off its effort to break off from St. Louis County and form a new county.
Calling itself Citizens for Responsive Government, the group said the name sums up its concerns about how county government in Clayton responds to Oakville residents.
“Ultimately, the goal is to incorporate or form a new county,” said Rep. Marsha Haefner, R-Oakville, a member of the steering committee. “This is not going to be a small project. It’s going to take dedication, and it’s going to take money.”
After an initial interest meeting in December attracted roughly 50 residents, a smaller group volunteered to serve as the effort’s steering committee. At their first meeting Jan. 23, they decided their next step will be contacting officials in the half of the county south of Interstate 40, and even Fenton and Arnold in Jefferson County, to gauge their interest in potentially breaking off with Oakville to form a new county.
Since plans for “Oakville County” are in their infancy, committee members do not yet know the size of the new county or what its tax base will be. Some steering committee members are from Lemay and want it to be part of the new county, which could potentially pull in the River City Casino as a source of revenue for the new county.
Even if no other cities or unincorporated areas decide to go in on the new county, Oakville itself is larger than many counties in the state, Haefner said.
Seceding from St. Louis County is unprecedented in modern times but has been done: The city of St. Louis split off in 1876, and long before that, Franklin County also split off from the county, St. Louis County Chief Operating Officer Garry Earls said.
“Whatever statute would have governed that I’m sure has been rewritten since,” said Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton. “I don’t think anything like this has been executed in recent memory in the region, or as far as I know, in any part of the state.”
In 1995, residents overwhelmingly voted against incorporating into a large city, South Pointe, which would have comprised most of south county. The idea of local control gained momentum when the county established trash districts and again last year, when Oakville residents contended they did not receive notice from the county about rezoning for a federally funded three-story senior apartment complex that Ohio-based developer National Church Residences built next to a preschool.
Although forming a new county is generally viewed as easier than incorporating as a city due to the county Boundary Commission, at this early stage Citizens for Responsive Government will continue exploring incorporation or annexation, and Haefner said she plans to file state legislation that makes it easier to incorporate.
Cities can only annex areas directly next to them, and Oakville, with a population of roughly 38,000, dwarfs nearby cities.
The closest cities to Oakville include Green Park, with a population of 2,268 in the 2012 census, and Bella Villa, with a population of 727. Representatives from the group also plan to meet with Sunset Hills Mayor Bill Nolan, whose city has a population of 8,516.
Running a county takes revenue, but a common contention among those who want to form a new county is that they send more money to Clayton than they get back in services, so they would not end up with less revenue if they take local control over their finances.
Earls disputes that, however, saying that residents in unincorporated St. Louis County pay the same property and sales taxes as residents in cities, but get more services back from the county in return, including police and road services.
“I don’t actually think you could say that they send more money in than they get back,” he said. “The folks in Oakville get two kinds of services — they get some direct services and some countywide services that we do for the entire rest of the county. If you add those all together, the folks in Oakville get the services that they pay for.”
Rather than immediately providing all the same services as St. Louis County, which is the largest county in the state, committee members suggest Oakville County could start smaller. At first the services might resemble a more rural county like Crawford County or Franklin County, then expand as the county grows.
Although Pat Washington, spokeswoman for County Executive Charlie Dooley, said he supports residents’ right to decide their own government, she noted that some of the most flourishing cities in the state are in St. Louis County and that residents report a high quality of life when the county takes surveys.
“What I can tell them is, paying for those services and running a county is an expensive business, so they’re going to have to have their tax base and do those things necessary to sustain a county,” she said. “I wish them well, but it’s not something to be entered into lightly or as some perceived retaliatory action over something that they disagree with government about.”
Although committee members said residents might be able to leave behind current tax obligations like the Metropolitan Zoological Park and Museum District and the Metro transit agency with a new county, Earls disagreed with that assessment.
“If they try to break away, I think they’d have to take part of the debt with them,” he said. “They probably could buy themselves out of some of the liabilities that we’ve engaged in through (Metro). But you can’t just take the good stuff, you’ve got to take the liabilities, too.”
Still, the members of Citizens for Responsive Government said last week that although they know they face an uphill battle, they believe they have been burned by Clayton more than enough times — and with the possibility of a city-county merger, they think they will have no problem gaining allies.
“We’re not isolated,” committee member Milton Rudi said. “Right now I kind of feel like we are, but this is a larger picture that we’re a part of.”