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Representatives from the pro-merger advocacy group Better Together and the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis, two groups with strikingly disparate views regarding regional government consolidation, traded barbs on Thursday in their first head-to-head debate on a subject that could shape the future of St. Louis.

Pat Kelly, executive director of the Municipal League, and Dave Leipholtz, research director at Better Together, met on the Inside the Post-Dispatch podcast. It was the first time since the release of the Better Together report in January that the two groups have debated the proposal in public.

Over the hour-long conversation, the two exposed key parts of each other’s plans, some of which have not been discussed publicly.

Leipholtz acknowledged that Better Together could have added a requirement for a local vote, even to a state constitutional amendment. He rejected the idea of a city “bailout,” but agreed that the new government was aiming to pay down city debt within the first 10 years, something it couldn’t do without saving and tax-sharing from the merger. And he agreed that the Better Together plan would indeed shift resources — police officers, for instance — from the wealthy to the needy.

“To most places, that’s a good thing,” Leipholtz said. “You put police officers where you want to address crime the most. And as novel as that is in St. Louis, that’s how most regions just operate.”

At the same time, Leipholtz painted municipal officials as leaders who have repeatedly failed to act.

Kelly, in response, repeatedly shifted blame to city and county leaders.

“You know, those are the issues that, really, the county executive is supposed to tackle,” Kelly said of regional woes.

Better Together announced in January its plan to gather more than 160,000 signatures and place on the November 2020 statewide ballot a measure to merge St. Louis and St. Louis County. The initiative, if passed, would combine under one metro city the police departments, court systems, roadways, regional planning and zoning and economic development arms of the city, county and the 88 county municipalities. County municipalities would become new political subdivisions, called “municipal districts,” with power over some services, such as parks and trash collection, but with otherwise severely restricted authority.

Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: Why can’t Better Together require a local vote?

Leipholtz: The legal analysis we got back was that you can’t do a vote and then also go back and count each vote in the city and county twice. You can’t give more weight to someone’s vote than to others.

Kelly: There’s no legal reason why you couldn’t add that into the constitution and have a separate vote.

Leipholtz: What about the 15 charter cities in St Louis County? Do they get a separate vote too? Because they get their authority directly from the constitution. Then that would set off a series of elections. We think there’s a real urgency to this.

Q: There are a lot of people who believe this is an attempt to bail the city of St Louis out of debt.

Leipholtz: We have a city that is doing just fine under the current circumstances, but we’re not going to see growth if we keep saying, “That’s a city problem. That’s a county problem.”

Q: That said, it does pay off city debt in what, six, seven, eight, nine years?

Leipholtz: That will depend on how aggressively they want to do that. But that’s a huge part of the savings — instead of making a credit card payment — paying down the actual balance.

Q: If you didn’t merge, you wouldn’t have the resources available to pay down that city debt so quickly?

Leipholtz: That would look differently for sure. And I think that one of the advantages is to create a structure that says we as a region are in this together. I don’t think that’s something we should shy away from.

Q: If county taxpayers had to dig a little deeper to cover services in the city while the city pays off its debt for a limited amount of time, why is that a bad thing?

Kelly: If St. Louis city and county residents want to make that decision, then that’s fine. But that’s not what’s happening.

Q: Does the Better Together plan believe that the earnings tax is an impediment to business growth?

Leipholtz: We’ve heard that from a lot of CEOs across the region. I don’t know that it’s an impediment for the entire region, but definitely for a bustling downtown. When’s the last time you heard of a, a big company moving to downtown St. Louis?

Q: Dave, if you were asked to sit on the Board of Freeholders, would you accept?

Leipholtz: We spent five years developing a plan, and it can’t be implemented through that. I think that’s one of the reasons that the Municipal League is for it. They know that it limits what you can do. In our minds, it’s a path to nowhere. It has never been successful in creating any government reform in St. Louis other than a sewer district.

Kelly: We’ll drop the Board of Freeholders if they want to add a second vote and give the residents of St. Louis city and county the ultimate say whether we have this merger or not.

Q: If Better Together required city-county voter approval, would you consider not suing?

Kelly: I think it’d be highly likely that we would do that.

Leipholtz: The reason we’re doing an initiative petition is that’s the path you go when governments refuse to act. And that’s where we’re at right now. The fact that they’re sitting here five years after we started asking to meet in the middle — there is no middle when you have one proposal and then nothing on the other side.

Q: The state of Michigan paid $300 million to get Detroit out of bankruptcy. Is this what you’re going to use to market this plan around the state?

Leipholtz: Suggesting we’d go that route is actually really insulting. When people ask us about Detroit, we’re going to talk about that reality. Is that going to be the message outstate? No, I think that the message outstate, the optimistic one, is the economic opportunity. We’re struggling to pay for things like roads as a state right now. So that’s the message that resonates.

Kelly: OK, mark that down.

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