Chances are you’ve never heard of Champ, Mo. It’s a suburb of St. Louis, wedged along the intersection of interstates 70 and 270. The village has a total of 13 people. It’s the smallest municipality in St. Louis County.
But it’s far from the only one that’s undersized. Nearly half the 89 municipalities in the county -- 43, to be precise -- have populations under 6,000. The city of St. Louis, meanwhile, has been an entity separate from the county since the “great divorce” of 1876. Civic leaders have been bemoaning the resulting fragmentation and petty rivalry ever since. Local governments, for instance, bid against their neighbors with sweetened tax deals to lure employers. And many of the smallest ones rely on court fees and fines to balance their budgets -- an issue that became contentious in Ferguson, one among the county’s plethora of small suburbs, after the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown. Ferguson was drawing much of its revenue from court fees levied disproportionately against the town’s African-American resident majority.
This summer, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and County Executive Steve Stenger held a news conference endorsing the findings of a group called Better Together, which promotes consolidation of local governments. The group claimed in a report that the proliferation of suburbs and the separation of city and county functions leads to as much as $1 billion annually in wasteful spending. Better Together called for the creation of a task force to devise specific steps by next year to consolidate services and reduce duplication. “In St. Louis, we’re spending more for governmental services while losing population,” said Krewson at a news conference.
Critics of consolidation, who are legion in the county, say that claims of potential cost savings are way overblown. The undersized munis -- the ones with fewer than 6,000 inhabitants -- account for only 4 percent of all the money spent by municipalities within the county, according to former Crestwood Mayor James Brasfield. In other words, you could eliminate them entirely and not save many dollars. “Somehow the fact that we have 89 municipalities instead of 30 causes the region to suffer serious stagnation,” Brasfield says with an air of sarcastic disbelief.
Last December, the city council in Chesterfield, one of the larger suburbs, with a population of nearly 50,000, approved a resolution opposing a city-county merger. In June -- around the time of the Better Together press conference -- the city council in Ellisville, population about 9,000, voted to put similar, nonbinding language before voters next year. As with boutique retail outlets, people in the area seem willing to pay a price for boutique municipalities, says Terry Jones, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “Even if there were a premium attached to that -- paying 10 to 15 percent more in taxes -- people would do it.”
No matter how logical municipal mergers seem to be in places like St. Louis County, they generally aren’t going to happen. It might make more sense for local leaders to continue looking for ways to consolidate specific services on a regional or at least more collaborative basis. “Forget about large-scale consolidation,” Jones says. “It doesn’t go anywhere politically.”