Taxation led to original St. Louis City and County divide


Story written by Kenya Rosabal

St. Louis City and County have been separate entities for more than 14 decades. This could all change in a couple of years. On a 2020 ballot, the option of merging the city and the county together again might be available for Missouri residents.

The proposition comes from Better Together, a non-profit organization that believes change is needed for St. Louis to thrive. The first split, known as ‘the great divorce’, happened on August 22,1876.

The idea of a split came after a rapid population growth in the 1800s. Clarissa Rile Hayward, professor of political science at Washington University, said the disproportionate number of people in the city compared to the county was a huge reason for the split.

“The city didn’t want to have to bear the financial burden for paying for roads, sewers and other services for the ‘country bumpkins’ out in the county,” Hayward said.


Because of the disproportion of the population, taxes became a huge factor in the decision of splitting the city and the county, Webster Professor Kristen Anderson said. Taxes could be handled within its respective boundaries with the city and county separate. People in the city where no longer paying for situations that affected the county and vice versa.

“A lot of the city’s tax dollars were going to pay for rural stuff,” Anderson said. “A lot of businessmen in the city felt like, why are my taxes paying for that?”

Colin Gordon, author of “Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City and professor at the University of Iowa said he saw the split as the city’s chance to run its own show.

“That made sense in the short run, but in the long run, the city lost because all of these other municipalities popped up in the county that had the same capacities and same desires to run its own affairs,” Gordon said.


Gordon said although it wasn’t until after the great divorce that race became a major factor, it is a huge result of it. Problems such as white flight began to become heavily prevalent in the 1930s because of the National Housing Act of 1934.

White flight refers to a mass number of white people moving out of urban areas with a large minority population into suburban areas.

“The whole thing was driven mostly by racism that you get white flight taking place; that white people are leaving parts of the city, especially where more African Americans were moving in, and going to the suburbs in the county.” Anderson said.

Hayward’s book, “How Americans Make Race”,  focuses on the institutionalized racism that happened in St. Louis.

“Starting around mid-century, whites moved en masse to white flight suburbs, especially in North County, and that’s when the racial motivations for maintaining the city/county divide became most pronounced,” Hayward said.

What happens now?

If the proposed merger by Better Together goes through, St. Louis would become the 10th most populous city in the U.S. compared to its current 62nd placement. St. Louis’ population will rise to about 1.3 million people.

St. Louis County’s current 88 municipalities, including Webster Groves, will become reclassified as municipal districts of the metro city. Municipal districts will be able to offer fire, parks and recreation, and trash and recycling services according to Dave Leipholtz, Better Together’s director of community-based studies.

The proposal if sprung into action will also diminish the 78 municipal courts to just one shared for the region.

Better Together’s plan to unite the city and county will need enough signatures to get the merger onto the ballot in November of 2020. St. Louis will join the list of other merged midwest cities such as Indianapolis, Louisville, and Kansas City if the merger is voted into action.

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Kenya Rosabal
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