ST. LOUIS — After five years of research, and input from more than 10,000 people in the region, Better Together has released their recommendation to unify St. Louis and St. Louis County into what they call a Metropolitan City.
The report recommends centralizing government, law enforcement and the court system to provide fair and consistent services to residents around the area. The sweeping plan would include a statewide vote and a two-year transitional period to implement the new plan.
What is Better Together?
Better Together was an organization formed in 2013 at the urging of local leaders. Their goal was to look at the current, fragmented layout of the St. Louis area and evaluate ways to improve through a City-County merger.
Better Together is funded by donations from a number of high-profile leaders in the area. Donors include current and former St. Louis mayors Lyda Krewson and Francis Slay, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger and millionaire Republican donor Rex Sinquefield. You can see the full list of donors on their website.
The project is headed by Executive Director Nancy Rice, a Democratic operative who was a senior aide and political director for Vincent C. Schoemehl during his three terms as mayor of St. Louis.
It also has a five-person City-County Task Force that was assembled in 2017 to find government reforms that could improve local government. Members include Spire CEO Suzanne Sitherwood, Washington University Associate Dean for Diversity Will Ross and Boeing Program Manager Kira Van Niel.
Better Together also has an 18-person board of directors.
Better Together wants to create a thriving, united St. Louis that competes internationally. Instead of competing between municipalities, they hope a united St. Louis with a unified government and growth plan for the area will bring growth back to what they say is a stagnating city.
They hope to do all this while preserving the culture and history of municipalities throughout the area.
Over five years, Better Together studied the problems and successes of the St. Louis area to develop what they think is the best way to improve the city. According to the report, they studied cities like Louisville and Indianapolis to see what worked and what didn't for similar projects.
While researching that, Better Together said it also got the input of 10,000 St. Louis-area residents to find out what they would want to see. Those input sessions included 34 public forums, thousands of individual meetings with business people, community leaders and residents.
After those five years of work, this is the plan they came up with.
A Metropolitan City
Under the recommendation, all of St. Louis and St. Louis County would be unified into what they call a Metropolitan or Metro City. By combining the city and county, St. Louis would become a city with 1.3 million residents, ranking it the ninth most populated city in the United States.
The Metro City would be overseen by a totally new government.
The report recommends one elected Metro Mayor, on prosecuting attorney, one recorder of deeds and a 33-member Metro Council.
The Metro Mayor would do the work of the current St. Louis Mayor and St. Louis County Executive.
The members of the Metro Council would represent new districts, which would be drawn by a nonpartisan expert to comply with the one-person, one-vote standard. The districts would each contain about 40,000 people, which is slightly more than the districts for the Missouri House of Representatives.
Each Metro Council Member would have to have at least two professional staff members to help serve their constituents.
Metro Council leadership positions would be voted on by the members of the council in an effort to ensure cooperation through the council.
The plan also suggests the creation of four Deputy Mayor positions to oversee:
- Community Engagement and Equity
- Economic Development and Innovation
- Public Health and Safety
- Community Development and Housing
The Metro City government would work to administer public safety, municipal courts, planning and zoning and economic development to the Metro City. School districts, fire districts would remain mostly unchanged.
Current municipalities will be preserved as municipal districts with limited authority and responsibilities. They would have the authority, but not the obligation, to offer services like fire protection, parks and recreation as well as trash and recycling that would be funded by local property and utility taxes as well as fees for service collected in the district.
The report recommends unifying the 55 current police departments into one, professional, accredited police department that would provide services throughout the Metro City. The reports says it would provide for the improved accountability, oversight and consistency for the entire area.
The report recommends a single municipal courts system for the entire Metro City with satellite locations for convenience to residents. Additionally, the report suggests one prosecuting attorney for the area.
The report also suggests combining the 21st and 22nd Judicial Circuits. This change would help facilitate criminal justice reforms and provide jury pools more reflective of the community, the report says.
The changes to both the court system and public safety would be made with the Ferguson Commissions report in mind.
Economic development and planning
The report recommends a centralized business licensing. This would reduce confusion business owner could face in the current system, with different municipalities having different requirements. The plan also calls for a single economic development plan for the entire region.
The report also recommends a similar centralized planning and zoning department. This department would work in concert with the Metro City Council to ensure developments don't have unintended consequences in other municipal districts,
The report said their analysis estimated the Metro City's revenue would exceed expenses by about $250 million. The report suggests and initial property tax for the Metro City would be lower than the current property tax rate in St. Louis County.
The plan would also phase out the St. Louis City earnings tax over 10 years, at 10 percent each year.
All outstanding debt in existing municipalities would stay in those municipal districts, and the municipal districts would be responsible for paying those debts off.
Why a statewide vote?
The divorce of the city and county is enshrined in the Missouri State Constitution, but the constitution also allows for a vote of just the city and county if a merger were proposed. So why does this plan call for a statewide vote?
According to the report, the additional reforms in the plan could not be carried out by a vote of just the city and county. Changes to things like the police and courts can only be changed with a constitutional amendment.
Over the next 19 months, Better Together is hoping to educate the public of their plan and gather further input from the community.
If they can gather the necessary support for the plan, they hope to put it to a statewide vote in November 2020 election.
If that passes, it would launch a two-year transition period starting on January 1, 2021. Over that time, the Mayor of St. Louis and the St. Louis County Executive will lead a transitional government that will carry out the necessary functions of government and formulates the institutions necessary for the new government.
During this transition period, local elections would be suspended until the first elections are held for the new Metro City government in November of 2022.