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Better Together reveals plan to merge city, county

FILE PHOTO: St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger applauds the words of St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson as she speaks at a presentation by Better Together where the plan to merge the city and county was revealed at the Cheshire hotel on Monday, Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Robert Cohen,

The Better Together plan to merge St. Louis and St. Louis County into a single metro city says efficiencies gained by combining governments will save taxpayers millions of dollars.

But both Mayor Lyda Krewson and County Executive Steve Stenger have told city and county employees not to be concerned — because their jobs will not be eliminated in the process.

Observers are wondering if they will be able to keep their promises. The plain language of the proposed 22-page constitutional amendment makes no mention of preserving jobs.

Not to worry was the first thing city employees were told. At the moment Krewson and Stenger gathered with merger proponents to announce the proposal on Jan. 28, city workers got an email from Krewson.

“If this plan passes, none of you will lose your job — every City employee will become an employee of the new Metro St. Louis government,” she wrote. “Also, importantly, you will stay in your pension system and none of your benefits will be lost.”

Stenger also issued an email to county employees endorsing the Better Together plan, but it did not address whether jobs were safe. He said later that he gathered his department heads and told them the plan would not result in layoffs or changes to their pensions.

Stenger’s staff emailed a statement that said the government would shrink to size by attrition.

“If, at some point, we identify opportunities for cost savings via staff reductions, we will be able to attain them through the County’s annual attrition rate of about 15 percent,” Stenger said in an email to a reporter on Monday. “The bottom line is that, based on the plain language of the amendment, much of the function of St. Louis County government would flow into the function of a new Metro City government.”

Krewson texted a similar statement: “Through natural attrition and retirements, we are confident that every City employee will be needed in the new metro city.”

The constitutional amendment would give Stenger — as the first “metro mayor” — broad authority to decide the structure of the new government. Stenger and Krewson by Nov. 15, 2022, would jointly present to the public a plan to create, organize and abolish departments of the former city and county.

“I don’t think anyone can make any commitments about what will happen when it’s all said and done,” County Council Chairman Sam Page said. “It will be up to Stenger, and he may hope or wish that we (don’t lose jobs) in any consolidation but when you merge two large governments, that’s on the table.”

Another question is whether officials in the county’s 88 municipalities can make the same promises.

Gregg Hall, the Hazelwood police chief and president of the St. Louis Area Police Chiefs Association, said he had no idea what his department would look like after the merger — how many of his officers would keep their jobs patrolling his city, what they would be paid or which entity would pay them.

“We haven’t been given the opportunity to ask questions or be face to face with someone who might at least give us some information,” he said.

The amendment says that all employees who work in the city or county in a capacity that provides general services, including police officers, would become employees of the metro city. Immediately after the merger takes effect, all municipal police departments would remain intact despite now coming under the command of a metro police chief. But the amendment does not guarantee anyone’s job is safe throughout the transition to a metro government.

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Dave Leipholtz, one of the principal authors of the Better Together report, said there are not even guarantees today that city or county jobs are safe. For example, employees of the county’s IT department told the County Council last month that several employees were slated for layoffs because of budget cuts. And, Leipholtz noted, that perhaps some municipal police officers with histories of jumping from department to department might not have the qualifications to work for a larger department.

Leipholtz said that after the transition, tax revenue that previously went to the municipalities to pay for services would instead go to the metro government.

And what that might look like in the long run is murkier than perhaps the area’s top leaders have let on.

Timeline of the plan

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