Skeptics outline opposition to city-county merger

Citizens could lose their voice with merger, Pousosa asserts

By Gloria Lloyd

Many of the region’s leaders turned out for a symposium on a city-county merger at St. Louis University earlier this year, and merger skeptics responded with their own forum last week to outline why they oppose the idea.

Many Republican politicians were in attendance, including former Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones, who told the group that he is in favor of a stronger St. Louis region, but the unknowns in a city-county merger are just too numerous to support it.

“Those of us who have grown up in the county and spent our hard-earned sweat to build careers and create businesses here — we do not want to take on problems of which we do not know, and I think that’s the biggest lesson to learn here,” Jones told the audience of roughly 60 people June 5 at The Lodge Des Peres, adding that during his time as speaker, the Legislature did not pass any pro-merger legislation.

Last week’s forum was organized by the St. Louis County Preservation Committee, a group opposed to a merger led by Jack Baumann, who owns two small businesses. Smaller governments can better serve the interests of the people they represent, he noted.

“A true merger would take representation further away from the individual,” he said. “I believe it would be bad for small business, in the sense that it would most likely mean more regulation and higher taxes.”

The city was originally part of the county and voted to split off in 1876, for reasons including higher taxation. At that time, the city had a larger population than the more rural county, but the county now has roughly a million residents, compared to 318,000 in the city.

The most common suggestions for a merger are for St. Louis to re-enter the county as the 91st municipality, or for the county and city to merge into a larger city-county government similar to the UniGov of Indianapolis and Marion County, Ind., which could dissolve the other city governments within the county, and unite the city and county under one government and a county mayor.

In recent months, Green Park, Ballwin, Ellisville and Valley Park have adopted resolutions opposing a merger that would dissolve municipalities or take away residents’ power to decide on their own city governments.

Green Park Ward 1 Alderman Tony Pousosa, who is seeking the Republican nomination for county executive in the Aug. 5 primary, linked the fight to keep municipal governments back to the Founding Fathers’ original vision for America, and his father’s own flight from communism when he moved from Cuba to the United States.

“With municipal government, even here in Des Peres, you can go to City Hall and make your voice heard. With the reunification, you may never be heard from again,” Pousosa said. “Are you ready to be controlled, or are you ready to take control?”

Crestwood resident Jennifer Bird, a Republican who is running for the 5th District County Council seat currently held by Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, founded another group that opposes the merger, Common Sense for St. Louis.

Comparing what the county spends on its information technology and personnel departments to what the smaller city of St. Louis spends on the same departments, Bird contended the city has to work on cutting its costs before the county should even consider the possibility of a merger.

Better Together, a nonprofit organization that says it takes no stance on a merger, is conducting a series of six studies on areas the city and county could merge, including public finance, public safety, public health, parks and recreation, administration and economic development.

So far, it has completed the public finance and economic development studies. County Executive Charlie Dooley and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay sit on the board of Better Together.

In response to the contention that St. Louis municipalities and the county provide “duplicate services,” Bird noted that individual cities only pay for their own police, fire and other services, which the county does not provide to that city. If the county provides police services to a city, city residents pay the county for those services.

Instead, Bird wondered if the merger is a bailout for the city, which has a larger per-capita budget and has more unfunded pension liability than the county does.

New cities enter the county as a pool city, sharing the combined sales taxes from all cities, instead of a point-of-sale city where they take in their own sales taxes, and Bird pointed out that the county has many more retail outlets than the city does.

“I don’t want to turn things into an ‘us or them’ type of situation … but when you have something that’s sick, you don’t want it to affect you negatively,” she said. “So that’s a lot of potential problems that could adversely affect us.”

A common contention among critics of a potential merger is that groups and people who want a merger are working behind the scenes on plans, without ever publicly unveiling their actual plan.

“We need to have all the details and all the facts, versus just feel-good sentiments about a better, stronger region,” Jones said. “And that’s easier said than done.”