October 21, 2019

Webster Groves mayor criticizes proposed St. Louis city-county merger

Supporters of a St. Louis City-County merger released a report on Jan. 29 outlining their plan to reunite the city and the county. St. Louis separated from St. Louis County in 1876 and remains separated despite previous efforts to combine them.

The initiative, Better Together, raised questions about the fate of Webster Groves for mayor Gerry Welch. Welch said the proposed merger became her first priority after Better Together released its report.

“This is the No. 1 issue because it’s the survival of our community,” Welch said. “In many ways, it’s almost like a nightmare.”

Welch expressed concern about municipalities’ ability to govern themselves if the proposed merger passes. In its report, Better Together claims municipalities such as Webster Groves would remain largely intact if the city and county merged.

The proposal includes one police department for a combined city and county with one police chief. Webster Groves would maintain its control over parks and recreation but lose its police force and public works.

Welch said a city-county merger would be undemocratic for Webster Groves and other municipalities in St. Louis County.

“It’s about people having a say in how their government works and operates,” Welch said, “and this really takes that away.”

Welch said most of the municipalities in St. Louis County do not need interference. Webster Groves government would have almost no control over how the city operates if the merger passes, Welch added.

Terrence Jones, professor emeritus of political science and public policy administration, said Better Together’s researching process contained flaws. Jones said Better Together did not include national experts on the issue that could have contributed to the study. Better Together claims academic experts from the St. Louis region contributed to its research.

Jones, who teaches at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL), said he felt most of the municipalities in the county govern themselves well. Stripping the municipalities of important responsibilities would essentially dissipate them, Jones said.

“It lowers the citizens of Webster Groves’ ability to govern themselves the way they want to be governed,” Jones said.

Jones questioned Better Together’s proposed revenue sources for municipalities. All sales tax revenue would go to the combined city if the proposal passes, leaving places like Webster Groves with less tax revenue.

Better Together’s report claims St. Louis’ revenue would exceed costs by $250 million. The report does not say how long it would take to save that amount.

Better Together Executive Director Nancy Rice said the cost savings outlined in the proposal would likely be in the first 10 years under the plan. She said Better Together is working on finalizing the timeline for estimated savings.

Rice said the top reasons behind Better Together’s proposal are unified economic development and municipal courts. St. Louis City and County contain 90 independent municipalities, 57 police departments, and 81 municipal courts.

Rice said municipalities in St. Louis County work against each other.

“We take our eye off the big picture,” Rice said. “Our competition should be Nashville and Kansas City, not Webster versus Kirkwood.”

Rice used the New York and Los Angeles police departments as an example of a unified police department that functions well. Not sharing information between police departments in the county, Rice said, impacts the public.

The 81 municipal courts in St. Louis City and County would consolidate into one municipal court if Better Together’s proposal passes.

“There has been a systematic effort through many of the municipal courts in St. Louis County to shake down residents,” Rice said.

Rice said Better Together talked to more than 13,000 St. Louis residents over the last five years online or in person. She said Better Together’s task force found St. Louis County residents appreciate the cultural aspect of their towns. Rice added that county residents did not need separate local governments in order to provide citizens with services they need.

Better Together’s task force recommendations require a constitutional amendment to be passed by Missouri voters to go into effect. A transition period will take effect on Jan. 1, 2021 until Jan. 1, 2023 if the amendment passes in 2020.

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