The nonprofit group Better Together on Monday unveiled its much anticipated plan to ask voters to merge St. Louis city and county, a move that its organizers said was necessary to help the region compete nationally and internationally.
A combined St. Louis would be safer, more prosperous and more fair than the sum of its parts, the group said in a report issued on Monday. And it would save the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
The group said it will undertake a $25 million campaign to put a St. Louis city-county merger vote on a statewide ballot in November 2020.
For the first time, the public can read the group’s recommendations and blueprint for creating a new “metropolitan city” to be superimposed over existing local governments.
But it has the backing of St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, who appeared with other area leaders on Monday to unveil and extol it.
"Today is indeed a historic day for St. Louis," Stenger said, asking people in attendance at the Cheshire hotel, which straddles the city-county line, to imagine a thriving metropolitan area with one modern government. "I say yes to one unified St. Louis."
Krewson said that St. Louis' fragmented governments "fuss and fight." She called on city and county residents to "put aside our anxieties, our fears, our parochialism."
Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton has agreed to lead the campaign.
There was no discussion of Rex Sinquefield, the billionaire philanthropist and political donor who has bankrolled much of the Better Together effort. His involvement has been a sore spot for organizers who have insisted their effort had grass roots.
The broad strokes of the plan have been known for weeks, after people familiar with the plan shared details with local journalists.
The metropolitan city would have one mayor, one prosecuting attorney, one assessor and 33 council members. Its legislative and executive seat would be in downtown St. Louis, with other offices spread across the region.
Pre-existing municipal authority over sales taxes, roads, courts, police and economic development would be eliminated.
Municipalities, which would be known as "municipal districts," could continue to levy utility and property taxes, operate parks and recreation facilities, collect trash and recycling, and direct building and zoning. School and fire districts would not change.
"Thirty-three council districts would yield district populations slightly larger than the current districts for the Missouri House of Representatives," the report said. "Based on the Task Force’s review, the larger Metro Council is also the best model by which to address concerns of African American political representation in the region."
The report also recommends the creation of four deputy mayor positions to be appointed by the metro mayor and oversee community engagement and equity, economic development and innovation, public health and safety, and community development and housing.
The report downplays one often-raised concern about a merger, that African-Americans would lose political clout in a merged municipality.
"Recent history, including the election of St. Louis County (Prosecuting Attorney) Wesley Bell, demonstrates that majority white populations can and do elect African-American officials," the report said.
The plan calls for consolidating 55 police departments in the city and county into one.
The authors of the report "learned of situations in which departments do not share crime data; instances in which addressing crime meant nothing more than trying to move issues into another municipality; and anecdotes of police departments being unable, or unwilling, to cooperate among themselves to address crime." And, they said, officers wanted access to more training and better social and mental health services when responding to calls.
The report also calls for consolidation of municipal courts with adequate oversight to avoid abuses and conflicts of interest like those highlighted in a Post-Dispatch investigation.
The county's 88 municipalities would become "municipal districts" that could deliver a limited array of services, including parks and recreation and trash collection. But they could no longer have police or courts. And they would still have to pay off their own existing debts and liabilities such as pensions.
The city of St. Louis would continue as a "municipal corporation" to satisfy its outstanding obligations. The earnings tax would be phased out by 10 percent annually.
If the group’s plan succeeds, a transition government led by the mayor and county executive would take over Jan. 1, 2021. Local elections would be suspended until the first elections are held for the new municipality in November 2022.
The group also spelled out the reasons it is seeking a statewide, rather than local, vote.
The Missouri Constitution allows for the creation of a city-county Board of Freeholders that could lead a merger and undo the Great Divorce.
The task force that wrote the Better Together report said it explored that route. But the task force said the local means suffered from "inherent limitations."
Merging the entities via a freeholder process would be impossible because the local plan "cannot supersede generally applicable inconsistent state laws or previously-enacted constitutional provisions," the report said.
Creating a new government structure to overlay the city and county would be the only way to adopt reforms to public safety, courts, taxes and municipal governments, the report said.
St. Louis' place among U.S. cities has slid steadily over the decades, from fourth in population in 1910 to 62nd in 2017. A merged city, with a combined population of 1.3 million residents, would be the 10th largest city in the country, between Dallas and San Jose, according to the U.S. Census.