October 21, 2019

City-county merger would help revive downtown St. Louis

Written by Warren Rosenblum

St. Louisans have turned their backs on the urban core. Not a single major company has moved its headquarters into the city in the past 30 years, even as hundreds of businesses have moved out. In recent times, law firms have also fled downtown for the greener pastures of Clayton. Even a giant St. Louis corporation that makes billions of dollars providing health coverage to poor people, opted for the suburbs rather than the city. Taxes on the company’s glistening new towers will help fund schools and services in Clayton, where the median income is $88,000 (twice what people earn in the city).

Middle-class residents, meanwhile, have been fleeing St. Louis City for decades. They used to call this “white flight,” but then African-Americans and immigrants started leaving as well. The reasons are the same: schools, crime, declining property values. Not surprisingly, the city’s population has plunged, from 850,000 in 1950 to just over 300,000 today. Retail has followed the middle-class exodus. Ever found a decent pair of shoes in the city? Me neither. City residents are forced to shop in the county, which means sales tax from the poorest people in our region goes to pay for amenities in Brentwood and Des Peres. Thanks in part to this reverse transfer of wealth, five suburban municipalities do not even bother to assess property tax.

Today, one in four city residents lives below the poverty line. The murder rate is staggering. Schools are mostly dismal. Homelessness is rampant. The one thing the city does better than the county is manage catastrophe. If you lose your home in the county, you will probably go downtown, because that is where there are shelters, soup kitchens, and services for people who have hit rock-bottom. Who pays for this assistance? Hint: it ain’t the county.

The abandonment of St. Louis City is immoral and untenable. No region can be great when its central core is anemic. No matter how much Clayton and Chesterfield boom and the office parks on 270 thrive, these successes will be overshadowed by the city murder rate and the shame of our poverty, infant mortality, epidemics of STD’s and other maladies. We need to address the fundamental discrepancy in people’s well being.

A city-county merger will not, by itself, create greater equity but it is an obvious step in the right direction. We need to pool our taxes so that regional revenues can be used to address region-wide challenges. We need shared policing, so that crime and security are treated everywhere as “our problem” – and not just “their problem.” We need to unify government so that our default mode of thinking is to identify as a region and not just as separate enclaves.  

Liberal suburbanites frequently point out their sympathy for the city. They contribute to charities, volunteer where they can and teach their children to value and respect the diversity of our region. But sympathy is not enough: what the city needs now is solidarity. The word “solidarity” comes from a French term that once signified the legal obligation of villagers for each other’s debts. Solidarity, in other words, is not about charity or empathy: it is about obligations based on a recognition of a shared community.

I am not naïve enough to think that people in the county will willingly take on all the city’s debts. But I do believe that county dwellers can and must recognize their responsibility and practical interest in helping the city thrive. Better Together is a deeply flawed plan. It must be amended to allow for a more democratic process of decision-making and restructuring. It must guarantee that questions of how to raise revenue and how to spend resources are decided by the elected governing bodies of the future. But Better Together, at least, is a plan, which means there is an opportunity for discussion and debate. To reject the idea of a city-county merger because of flaws in the current proposal or antipathy toward the billionaire who got it started would be a mistake. This a good moment to start thinking long-term, a good moment to start building solidarity.

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