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St. Louis Scraps Potential City-County Merger

In the face of widespread opposition and the guilty plea of a top supporter, proponents of a single metro government have put their plans on hold.

St. Louis arch
The city and county of St. Louis have been separate entities for more than 140 years. The idea of merging the two governments and eliminating most of the municipalities within the county has dominated local political discussion this year.

But the idea is dead, at least for now.

Backers of a proposed statewide ballot measure to create a merger announced Monday that they're canceling their plans. The idea had run into opposition from nearly every local elected official.

Talk of the merger was torpedoed by the indictment last week of St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, who pled guilty to bribery charges and relinquished his office. Stenger had been slated to act as mayor of the combined city until after new elections could be held, had the ballot measure passed.

"With the turmoil in the county, now is not the time," tweeted St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson. "I believe fragmentation limits progress for our residents & I continue to support a city/county merger. We can revisit this in the future."

Mergers are always a tough sell. Sponsors of the St. Louis proposal, a group called Better Together, earned extra pushback by seeking to put the measures before voters on a statewide ballot. Even if city and county residents voted against the idea, it could have been passed with support throughout the state.

The plan was to merge major government functions in the St. Louis area, including law enforcement, courts, taxing authority, planning, zoning and economic development. The city of St. Louis and St. Louis County, which split up in the “Great Divorce” of 1876, were to be recombined, while most services currently provided by the county and the 88 separate municipalities within it would be consolidated.

Some people still think it’s about time. Nineteen of the 88 municipalities have populations under 1,000 -- one has a grand total of 12 residents -- while another 31 have fewer than 5,000. Proliferation of governments not only means the added expense of countless separate agencies, but it also creates a struggle for sustainable revenues that leads to the imposition of burdensome fees.

Some services, such as sewers, have been consolidated over time, but in most instances the various separate governments go their own way, making regional cooperation a chore. “Why does a region with world-class resources struggle to thrive and compete in a global economy?” Better Together asks. “The answer lies in St. Louis’ outdated and obsolete fragmented structure.”

Nothing has united the area like the proposed merger. Everyone seems to be against it. Nearly every elected official in the region was opposed to the idea, with numerous towns passing resolutions of disapproval.

As tends to happen with proposed mergers, suburbanites don’t want to take on the perceived problems of the major city, while city residents worry that their political representation would be diluted within the larger area. (If the merger had gone through, St. Louis would have become the nation’s 10th largest city, with 1.3 million residents. The city’s current population is just over 300,000.)

The question was not to be decided by area residents, but by voters statewide. It was clear how Better Together intended to sell the idea to the rest of Missouri: If the merger didn't pass, St. Louis would end up declaring bankruptcy, leaving the state to pick up the tab. 

Whatever the facts, that might have been a resonant argument in outstate Missouri, which tends to view St. Louis with a combination of suspicion and derision. There was plenty of money ready to amplify the message, since Better Together is bankrolled by Rex Sinquefield, a retired financier who is Missouri’s leading political donor.

“I don’t know of a precedent where you have a type of government forced on a part of the state by the rest of the state,” says Terry Jones, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

The Missouri House approved a constitutional amendment, which would have sat alongside the Better Together measure on the November 2020 ballot, requiring local approval before mergers could go through. Better Together officials say that if and when they revive the idea, they will make sure that any plans win approval from city and county voters.

During the debate about the proposal, local officials stressed that they didn't need to have merger forced on them by fiat, that there were plenty of ways to collaborate and combine services when appropriate. Whether they'll now follow through on such plans, given the absence of the big stick of a ballot initiative, becomes a pertinent question for the St. Louis region.

This story has been updated.

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