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Changing the Structure of Government in St. Louis City and County
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This Discussion Guide is part of Community Conversations at FOCUS St. Louis.  It is meant to initiate civil discourse around the policies that affect the St. Louis region; to hear each other’s perspective. As is the case with all public policies, this issue is complex and multi-faceted, with many stakeholders. Please keep this in mind as you discuss the possibility of changes to the structure of government in St. Louis City and St. Louis County in your community.
Changing the Structure of Government in St. Louis City and St. Louis County

The city of St. Louis separated from St. Louis County in 1876 in what has become known as "The Great Divorce.” The effort was promoted by residents of the city of St. Louis, who objected to the cost of supporting ongoing expansion in St. Louis County. The Missouri Charter of 1875, which authorized the separation, established St. Louis as a home rule city and also froze the city’s boundaries, making St. Louis City one of the first cities in the country to limit its boundaries. 

There have been attempts to change the structure of government in St. Louis City and St. Louis County in decades past. They have varied in scope and method, but all have failed. In 1926, there was an attempt at a complete city takeover. The plan passed in St. Louis City but failed in St. Louis County.  In 1958-59, there was an attempt to create a new layer of government with a president and legislature that would have power over arterial roads, public transit regulation, land use planning, economic development, wastewater sewers, civil defense, and crime lab/police academy. This attempt failed to garner enough votes in the city or in the county. In 1962, an amendment was proposed to create a Municipal County with 22 boroughs each electing two representatives to a legislative council and an executive mayor. This attempt failed by wide margins statewide and in St. Louis City and in St. Louis County. In 1987, there was an attempt to combine the 90+ County municipalities into 37, create a joint Economic Development District, and reduce protection districts to four. A County earnings tax would have replaced property taxes and zoning would have been guided by a county-wide master plan. This attempt also failed in both the city and county, but came closer than any other attempt when it was able to garner 47% and 46%, respectively.

In 2013, Better Together, a 510(c)(3) corporation, began a 16-month study that inquired into the factors influencing a city-county merger. This six-part study rekindled the debate regarding the “Great Reconciliation.” Proponents for the merger argue the city and county waste $2 billion a year on duplicate services.  Other proponents argue a merger that brought the county back into city would cause automatic population growth to the city that would increase the region’s perception to outsiders and investors.  


Opponents of the merger were quick to vocalize their various opinions. Some opponents fear that any merger would result in less direct democracy. Many of the towns in St. Louis County are small, close-knit communities that allow citizens to develop personal relationships with their public servants. If a merger were to take place, this relationship would be endangered as duplicate services would likely be cut. The duplicate services may be costly, but they are playing for its luxurious with their own taxes. Other opponents claim the merger will act as a “bailout” for St. Louis City, which is currently facing underfunded pensions and government deficits. The first report released by Better Together debated this argument claiming St. Louis County “cannot be held in anyway [legally] responsible” for the city’s debt. 


The arguments for and against a merger will remain broad and ambiguous until a defined proposal for a city-county merger is presented. Some predict the completion of the Better Together’s reports in 2015 will result in a proposal being placed on the 2016 ballot.   


According to the Missouri Constitution, any attempt to change the structure of government in St. Louis City and St. Louis County would begin with separate initiative petitions in those jurisdictions. The petitions would ask that a board of freeholders (now called a board of electors) be appointed and would require the signatures of registered voters that total 3% of the votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election. Once the election boards of St. Louis City and St. Louis County certify that the signature requirement has been met, the Mayor of the City of St. Louis and the County Executive of St. Louis County would have ten days to appoint a board of electors consisting of 9 members each from their respective jurisdiction. No more than five of the appointees in each jurisdiction may be of the same political party. Then, the legislative body for each jurisdiction, the Board of Alderman in the City and the County Council in St. Louis County, would approve the board with a simple majority vote. Within thirty days of the certification of the signatures, the Governor of Missouri would also appoint a 19th member of the board. This appointee must be a Missouri resident from outside St. Louis City or St. Louis County. Once board membership is complete, the board is required by the Missouri Constitution to meet on the second Monday at the Board of Alderman chambers in the City of St. Louis to proceed with the discharge of their duties. 


Once the members of the Board of Electors are selected, they have one year to develop a plan that is approved by a majority of the board. The Missouri Constitution provides five alternatives under which to draft their plan. They are:  (1) to consolidate the territories and governments of the city and county into one political subdivision under the municipal government of the city of St. Louis; or, (2) to extend the territorial boundaries of the county so as to embrace the territory within the city and to reorganize and consolidate the county governments of the city and county, and adjust their relations as thus united, and thereafter the city may extend its limits in the manner provided by law for other cities; or, (3) to enlarge the present or future limits of the city by annexing thereto part of the territory of the county, and to confer upon the city exclusive jurisdiction of the territory so annexed to the city; or, (4) to establish a metropolitan district or districts for the functional administration of services common to the area included therein; or, (5) to formulate and adopt any other plan for the partial or complete government of all or any part of the city and the county. Once the board of electors follows these guidelines and approves a plan, it would go before the voters of St. Louis City and St. Louis County and approval by concurrent majorities of those citizens is required for passage.

Involved Groups

The idea of reconciling the Great Divorce of 1876 in some fashion has been widely discussed for decades. In recent months, that discussion has increased with the formation of several different groups that are studying the fragmented nature of the government in St. Louis City and St. Louis County, supporting changes to the structure of the government of St. Louis City and St. Louis County, or opposing changes to the structure of those governments.


Better Together is a 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization that formed in 2013 to study the fragmented nature of local governments. They state that they are neither putting forth nor advocating for a specific plan, but rather seeks to act as a facilitator, a resource for information and tools, and a catalyst to spark discussion. 


UnifySTL “is a group of thought leaders who all agree the reunification of St. Louis City and St. Louis County must be made a priority in order for the region to regain its rightful place as a top tier market.” The organization encourages city and county residents to sign their electronic petition to show support for the merger. 


STL—World Class City is an organization with the mission to lay the foundation for St. Louis County to extend its boundaries to include St. Louis City no later than the 250th Anniversary of the City in 2014, and thus become the 92nd municipality in St. Louis County. Stop the City-County Merger (Facebook page) is a group of citizens organized on line that believe millionaires and elected officials in the City are pushing hard to merge St. Louis City & County so that County taxpayers will help bail the City out of the fiscal mess they have created. 


Common Sense for St. Louis is a group of approximately 40 citizens that have coalesced with the goal of ensuring that the city and county do not align into a single governmental unit.


Possible Viewpoints:

Person A is opposed to any type of changes to the government structures of St. Louis City and St. Louis County. They believe that the current structure of government is designed to give residents the choice of what type of community they live in and any unification effort would lead to the elimination of that choice.


Person B is supportive of St. Louis City reentering St. Louis County as a municipality. They believe that will reduce the unnecessary duplication of some government offices and officials and therefore save the taxpayer money. They also believe that this option allows different communities to retain their independence and identity.


Person C is supportive of more incremental change to government structure, along the lines of the recent merger of the St. Louis City and St. Louis County economic development agencies. They believe this gradual approach offers options that are attainable while demonstrating a strong sense of regionalism.

Person D is supportive of the creation of one large political subdivision under control of the City of St. Louis. They believe that the success of other metropolitan areas such as Louisville and Indianapolis show that creating one large political subdivision creates an entity able to compete on a global scale in the 21st century economy.

Questions for Consideration:
  1. Where in the region do you live?
  2. Which person do you most closely identify with? Why?

  3. Why do you think people are passionate about this issue? Why are they disinterested?
  4. How important is it that our region remains in the top 20 metro regions (currently 19th)? Is changing the structure of government necessary to ensuring that happens?
  5. What factors came into play when you were choosing where to live?
  6. If you felt strongly about this issue, what are you willing to do to inform others and encourage engagement?
Possible Action Steps:
  1. Attend a community meeting.
  2. Host a community conversation.
  3. Call your alderperson/county councilperson.

  4. Write a letter to the editor of your local paper.

  5. Run for local office.

Links for further reading:
  1. National League of Cities: List of Consolidated City-County Governments
  2. National League of Cities: City-County Consolidations
  3. Public Policy Research Center at UMSL -- Reconciling the Great Divorce: The City of St. Louis Reentering St. Louis County
  4. Better Together Website
  5. Stop the City-County Merger Facebook Page
  6. April 23, 2014 St. Louis Public Radio Article: Is Smaller Better? Multitude Of Municipalities Plays Into City-County Merger Debate
  7. April 2, 2014 St. Louis Post Dispatch article: Ellisville moves to oppose city-county merger.
  8. March 24, 2014 St. Louis Post Dispatch article: Ballwin approves resolution opposing St. Louis city-county merger
  9. March 5, 2014 St. Louis Ameriacn article: Fragmentation and segregation
  10. February 17, 2014 St. Louis Post Dispatch article: Wanna talk merger? St. Louis leaders to discuss possible city/county marriage
  11. February 8, 2014 St. Louis Post Dispatch article: Report: St. Louis City-County merger would not force county to assume debt
  12. February 4, 2014, Legal Memo from Polsineslli to Better Together: Key Questions – Public Finance Study
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