About the Contributors
Other stories filed under Commentary
May 9, 2019
In the years since 1876, a date hailed in Saint Louis history as the great divorce, Missouri lawmakers have tried five times to rejoin Saint Louis City and County in one massive city. Each attempt was a failure.
Everyone understands that the status quo is broken. In an editorial, founder of the Riverfront Times, Ray Hartmann, wrote “[Saint Louis] city is crime-ridden and financially in peril. The county is plagued with balkanization and, like the city, is stagnant and governmentally challenged.” Hartmann is not alone in his analysis.
USA Today, CBS News, Forbes, World Atlas, and more rank Saint Louis as the most dangerous city in America. To form the basis of their analysis, they cite that there are 1,817.1 violent Crimes per 100,000 people that live in STL.
“The status quo is a recipe for stagnation, decline, and widening disparities within our region,” recognizes nonprofit group funded by billionaire Rex Sigfield, Better Together.
In their study, Better Together asks us to “Imagine a world-class city we can all be proud to call home that competes on a national and an international stage.” The group tells us to “Imagine a safer, more prosperous, more secure city that takes care of everyone equitably and where everyone has the opportunity to achieve.”
Better Together envisions a pseudo-utopian manifestation of Saint Louis we know today. On their website, they proudly assert “Change is needed and the time is now.” And Better Together claims to have an understanding of what is necessary to transform STL into their image. By merging Saint Louis City and County, Better Together suggests over $4.9 billion could be saved. By creating a new metro city, our proportional crime numbers would plummet, and STL would quickly drop off all the most dangerous lists.
On the surface, Better Together seems to give STL everything we have been looking for- from saving money to bridging the racial and socioeconomic divides that exist within a post-Michael Brown Missouri. When you peel back the layers of the dazzling hey guys claims made by Better Together, however, you begin to notice things. One of the most startling is that Better Together provides no facts whatsoever to suggest that their proposed metro city cuts government costs at all. They rely on their “common sense” to formulate their suggested savings numbers.
But Better Together’s common sense may not be as common as they suggest. After an extensive review of real-world consolidation efforts, analyst Megan C. Kuhlenschmidt found that “structural consolidation is often proposed as a quick fix when in fact it often has weaker outcomes than advertised. The premise that a larger number of local governments is inherently bad and will result in increased taxpayer expense, lack of efficiency, or lack of responsiveness is not supported by available research on the issue.” Just because you combine the governments doesn’t mean that you can drastically reduce government spending. You still have to provide the same services even though the government is bigger. It would be ill-advised to accept any unsupported claim that is contradictory to the evidence it is predicated on. Forming a metro city on the grounds that it might save money is simply unjustified.
As you read the report, another thing you notice is that Better Together’s research doesn’t examine school districts in any capacity. This is an odd choice, seeing as school districts are essentially the biggest push and pull factors for living in a given area in Missouri. In Clayton, we are well aware of the impact a thriving school district has on house prices. To justify why school districts were left out of the picture, Nancy Bowles, spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said “[The proposition] is strictly a local government decision. The school district boundaries would not change.” Better Together’s leaves out school districts, practically the most influential aspect of county and city life. The merger does not even attempt to solve the deeply rooted inequities that exist in Missouri education. Supporting a merger on the grounds that it could help tip the scales in favor of the underprivileged student is unjustified.
Merging the city and county is not without its negative consequences. By combining regional governments into a larger one, local voices are effectively silenced by outsiders. “We’re absolutely against the statewide vote on any plan,” said Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III. “No one wants to have an outsider telling them how to run their community.” The metro city would replace small government with a less accountable big bureaucracy, and there would be no shortage of outsiders in leadership. The voices which form the foundation of democracy, the true change agents of our society, are muffled by the merger.
Conveniently, the one thing the merger seems really good at doing is manipulating the numbers. It is true that if we combined the city and county that our crime statistics would go down; diffusing crime in the city amongst low-crime counties make the percentages more appealing. Simply changing the numbers doesn’t change the fact that Saint Louis is still struggling. In fact, I fear that a plan that simply makes the numbers prettier breeds complacency in the face of the challenges we still face as a city. Everyone recognizes that the status quo is broken. The way to reach a comprehensive treatment for our collective wounds is not likely to be found in a radical movement like a merger. It will require a strong local response through representatives that are truly intuned with their constituents rather than big bureaucracy.
A few days ago Better Together announced that they have pulled their petition from consideration. I see this as a minor victory of truth over comfort. We rejected a too good to be true deal claimed to have the answers to all of our city’s ails. We looked past flashy numbers, understanding that our problems don’t disappear once the statistics drop.
We recognize our strength resides in the powerful voices of local governments that inch every day towards the vision of Saint Louis we see on the horizon.