Merger talks? St. Louis officials open to reuniting city and county

A 1959 plan to create a “metropolitan district” and a 1962 plan to create 22 “boroughs” both failed.

Argus Staff

92+ municipalities is the result of laziness and racism, and St. Louis needs to collaborate now!Editor.

St. Louis and St. Louis County leaders are again talking about a reunion.

Leaders in both governments have spoken in recent days on how to restart the process that could reshape the region’s fractured government. County Executive Sam Page, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones and even the new city aldermanic president, Megan Green, all say that they are interested in rekindling discussions.

“I believe it would be the right thing to do under the right set of circumstances,” Page said. “But I have to be very careful about making a global statement about an action that doesn’t have details attached to it. That would be inflammatory.”

Leaders have tried several times to undo voters’ almost 150-year-old decision to split St. Louis and St. Louis County. The most recent effort, dubbed “Better Together,” failed spectacularly not four years ago. But it also reinvigorated the long-standing argument that city government, county government and all 88 county municipalities could operate much more efficiently. Even critics of past efforts have begun to talk about small steps — such as, perhaps, St. Louis reentering St. Louis County.

“The notion of having the city separated from the county, it keeps coming back to this isn’t a good idea,” said Jim Brasfield, a retired political science professor from Webster University and former Crestwood mayor who staunchly opposed Better Together.

History isn’t on the side of unity. After the city and county separated in 1876, there have been seven notable attempts to unite or modify city and county governments. Better Together, which proposed merging the city, county and all of the county municipalities into one mega-government, went down in flames amid scandal in 2019. But the effort reignited an old idea: restarting a Board of Freeholders, a commission defined in the Missouri Constitution as one with the power to merge or reorganize regional governments.

And now, with the county facing a multimillion-dollar budget deficit and the city still losing residents, leaders are looking for ways to save money, boost services and attract residents and business.

Combining city offices such as the health department or election board with their counterparts in the county, Brasfield said, could be a huge cost savings. An agreement could also merge unincorporated parts of the county into municipalities, providing relief to the county’s strained budget by reducing the amount of services it provides.

Page said he’s ready to talk and is waiting for the city to make a move. Page said he won’t rush the city, but he has talked informally with Jones about kick-starting the Board of Freeholders. With his reelection behind him, now could be the time, Page said.

“Now that that’s done I think we’ll see if they want to talk about a Board of Freeholder process,” Page said.

Green, the newly elected president of the city’s Board of Aldermen, said the city needs to get its “own house in order first.” But calling a meeting of the Board of Freeholders would be on her list of things to do if she wins a full, four-year term in April, she said.

The mayor is also open to the discussion, Jones spokesman Nick Desideri said in a statement.

“Any process towards a city-county merger must be transparent,” he said. “And the final decision will ultimately rest with voters.”

Déjà vu

Elected officials in the St. Louis region have long had visions of erasing lines between the two governments.

In 1926, a group of civic leaders and prominent St. Louisans lobbied to consolidate the city and county, but county voters rejected it. Another bid to create a metropolitan government was defeated in 1930. The year 1954 brought the only joint city-county effort voters have approved: forming the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District.

A 1959 plan to create a “metropolitan district” and a 1962 plan to create 22 “boroughs” both failed.

Former County Executive Gene McNary tried to significantly cut the number of county municipalities in 1987 using the Board of Freeholders process. It failed when the U.S. Supreme Court found invalid the state constitution’s requirement that only property owners could serve as “freeholders” — a word with ancient roots equating to “landowner.”

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