Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

'Better without Us': Missouri Mayors Prepare to Fight Consolidation Plan

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

'Better without Us': Missouri Mayors Prepare to Fight Consolidation Plan

Article excerpt

ST. LOUIS - Missouri mayors from Blue Springs to Ferguson, from small towns to wide suburbs, are vowing a broad and urgent campaign against the forced consolidation of St. Louis County municipalities into a single government that could effectively eliminate their towns -- and their jobs.

The mayors said they are considering options now and preparing for action. Several suggested reaching out to every single resident through city-run "informational" campaigns. Others said they hope to quickly create a less-extreme alternative to wholesale unification. Still others threatened to mount an offensive equal in scope and size to the $25 million consolidation campaign yet to officially be announced.

"We're absolutely against the statewide vote on any plan," said Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III, a board member for the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis. "No one wants to have an outsider telling them how to run their community."

In recent weeks, news has trickled out that a St. Louis nonprofit called Better Together, funded largely by billionaire financier Rex Sinquefield, is on the cusp of formalizing a plan years in the making.

Leaders plan to announce at the end of this month an initiative to gather at least 160,199 signatures and place on the November 2020 statewide ballot a measure to merge St. Louis and St. Louis County -- and combine under one megacity the police departments, court systems, roadways and economic development arms of the city, county and all 88 county municipalities.

The quick backlash from Missouri mayors shows just how difficult the task will be, and how fervent the opposition already is. Mayors argue that their cities are well-run, their police departments excellent and their residents happy with small-town and suburban St. Louis County. But more than anything, they called the statewide vote an unreasonable, undemocratic attempt to bypass local voters that will ultimately be ineffective.

"This is a local issue that needs to be decided locally," said Richard Sheets, deputy director and lobbyist for the Missouri Municipal League. "If statewide voters can say one particular area would have to take on this form of government, why couldn't you do that to Springfield and Greene County and Jackson County?

"It's contrary to logic and good government."

If the merger group successfully collects the signatures it needs, this would be the fifth time an effort to unify the region has hit the ballot since the Great Divorce of 1876. All have failed.

Better Together organizers have studied successful consolidations in Indianapolis, Louisville, Ky., and Nashville, Tenn., and knew when they started that they would have a fight on their hands.

"There's a natural tendency to protect what you have," Executive Director Nancy Rice said on Friday. "And that's what we see playing out here."

WHY A STATEWIDE VOTE?

Better Together's plan to permanently consolidate county courts and police departments would require an amendment to the Missouri Constitution, Rice said, and that requires a statewide vote. "Our lawyers are certain," she added.

Some area officials are publicly supporting the effort.

"If you live in more affluent parts of St. Louis County, it's much easier to say everything is fine," said St. Louis Alderman Scott Ogilvie, who represents part of Dogtown and other nearby neighborhoods. "But the reality is the fate of the region is clearly all tied together. And a lot of St. Louis County is not fine."

The region must improve services to its poorest residents, he said. And, to do that, it needs more from its richest.

Every mayor contacted by the Post-Dispatch in recent days agreed that the region needs to cooperate better. …

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