David Rusk spent as much time as anybody picking apart the now-abandoned Better Together plan.
He’s written 11 white papers, published by Construction Forum STL, in which he criticizes everything from the plan’s financial assumptions to its penchant for centralizing things that don’t need to be centralized.
When Rusk came to town Wednesday, though, he also wanted to talk about three things Better Together got right. One is that many municipalities in St. Louis County are too small to fund their infrastructure needs. Another is that fragmented government is closely connected to racial and economic segregation. The third is that fragmentation can hold back economic growth.
Rusk, who was part of a Construction Forum speaker series, is worth listening to on these issues. He’s been mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., and a scholar at various think tanks, and his book “Cities Without Suburbs” has influenced a generation of urban planners.
Though he wasn’t a fan of the Better Together plan, Rusk doesn’t believe doing nothing is an option for St. Louis. He also thinks any future reforms should be sold on the basis of making government better, not cheaper.
“It’s tempting, but you must not sell any kind of a merger on the basis of saving money,” he said. “What you can sell is a better, more professional standard of service. You need to find a way to establish structures … that can facilitate cooperation, and then let people reap the benefits.”
Rusk endorses having the city re-enter St. Louis County, which could be accomplished through a board of freeholders. The St. Louis County Municipal League is already gathering signatures to start such a process.
That change alone, however, would do little to address the inequities that are one of the region’s most pressing problems. Rusk would like to see the Missouri Legislature expand St. Louis County’s sales-tax pool, ending the system where some cities keep revenue from sales inside their borders. He’d also like to see some property-tax sharing, as is done in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
He suggests that St. Louis County, which has a triple-A credit rating, could guarantee municipalities’ bonds. This would allow the cities, most of which can’t access credit markets on their own, to borrow money for capital improvements.
In addition, Rusk would create what he calls “communities of common interest,” a way for neighboring cities to cooperate on things like business licensing or policing.
In his most sweeping and perhaps most controversial recommendation, Rusk says the Bi-State Development Agency and East-West Gateway Council of Governments could be merged into a single entity, with an elected board and authority over area-wide land-use planning. The model would be the Metro agency in Portland, Ore., the nation’s only directly elected regional government.
All of his ideas face serious political hurdles. A metro-wide agency would require approval by the Missouri and Illinois legislatures, for example, and voters have rejected past efforts to end the city-county divorce.
Some of the ideas also need a little more thought. If many of St. Louis County’s 88 municipalities are too small to be viable, wouldn’t a bond guarantee and a richer sales-tax pool just perpetuate inefficiency?
That could perhaps be solved by setting minimum standards for cities that want to participate. With appropriate public input — something that was missing from the Better Together process — Rusk’s recommendations could be tweaked into a structure that makes local governments more effective, while giving all area residents a voice on issues that affect the whole region.