Friday, November 19, 2010

Looking for Leadership on Regional Cohesion

Will this flag someday fly over ALL of St. Louis?
This week, the Post-Dispatch continued its excellent "Can St. Louis Compete?" series, analyzing the region's disproportionate focus on real estate development rather than job creation, and the competitive and counter-productive use of tax incentives by the region's numerous governmental entities.  It seems pretty clear that if the paper's query ended "With Itself?", the answer would be a resounding "yes."

There are, of course, no easy solutions to the problems examined by the series, rooted as they are in complex and intertwined financial, political, and social issues.  I believe, however, that the re-entry of the City of St. Louis into St. Louis Countyif not a full-scale consolidation of the City and the Countywould be a step in the right direction.  This spring, I wrote a post on reunification, arguing that "re-joining the City to the County would help foster a sense of regional cooperation that is lacking now, to the greater good of all of St. Louis."  While only a cursory overview of the issues (and probably oversimplistic in its analysis), I continue to believe in its central premise that reunification would be a long-term net positive for all of St. Louis.

Of course, as many others have said, rejoining the City and the County would not be a "silver bullet" to solve the region's problems.  Such "solutions" don't exist in the real world.  Without complementary reform efforts, such as changing the way in which intra-regional municipalities use local tax incentives (particularly tax increment financing) in an "inefficient, zero-sum competition for tax base with their neighbors", it's possible that reunification would have very little effect at all.  To me, though, the question isn't whether reunification solves the problems the region faces (it certainly won't), but whether it is a stephowever smallin the right direction.

Admittedly, it may not be.  As some suggest, enhanced collaboration among specific organizations and interest groups may be more effective and efficient than changes to governmental structure.  There is certainly evidence that city-county consolidations don't always result in the cost savings touted by their advocates, and even that they can do more harm than good.  And concerns held by residents of the City (e.g., ceding control over urban issues to the County) and the County (e.g., the assumption of liabilities from the financially struggling City) are not irrational. 

To me, though, it seems intuitive (and real-life examples from elsewhere suggest) that a united City and County would become stronger over the long term.  If nothing else, the re-entry of the City into the County would be a symbolic step toward increased regional cooperation, and ultimately may advance a new paradigm of competing against other regions instead of ourselves.  As business columnist David Nicklaus said in Tuesday's online discussion, "The outside world sees us as one metro region, and the more we look at ourselves that way, the better off we'll be."

Of course, we cannot know the precise effects of reunification before it occurs.  What we do know, though, is that St. LouisALL of St. Louisneeds to analyze these questions critically, to the point of starting to come up with some answers.  For too long, we have heard about the problems caused, at least in part, by the ultra-divided nature of our region, and by our self-defeating infighting.  How long do we have to hear about the problems, before we start demanding solutions?

Perhaps those demands are about to multiply.  Gauging by the (mostly) thoughtful online comments to one of the series' articles, the region's citizens are engaged in the discussion and are looking for answers. In addition, there are rumors in the air about the formation of a citizens' group to begin advocating for the re-entry of the City into the County.  The conversation will be further advanced with the publication (probably in a month or so) of the next installment of the "Can St. Louis Compete?" series, which will focus specifically on our governmental structure.

It is my hope that the increased focus and public engagement on these issues will act as a catalyst for policymakers and business leaders alike to begin identifying waysspecific waysto begin tackling these oft-cited problems.  Again, it is certainly possible that reunification is not the answer.  But if that is not one of our first steps, then whatspecificallyis?  What are the first steps we should take together to begin competing more with other regionsfor businesses, jobs, and residentsthan with ourselves?  

And who is going to lead the discussion?  City of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, for one, has long advocated the City's re-entry into the County.  Mayor Slay amplified his position on the issue earlier this year, taking to his blog, Twitter account, and the media with calls for a vote on the re-entry of the City into the County within two years.  Mayor Slay rightly noted that there would have to be a "huge benefit" to the County for reunification to work, and described the process as "slow" and "with much public debate."  In a discussion I had with the Mayor's office earlier this year, I was told that a push for reunification would begin after the County Executive election in November, assuming that the County Executive (Charlie Dooley) was agreeable to it.

The public debate seems to be well underway, and I believe that the Mayor's position has not changed.  What is less clear (to me, anyway) is the extent to which County leaders are stepping to the plate.  "Dooley's Merger" became a heated issue in the waning days of County Executive Dooley's campaign against challenger Bill Corrigan, with County Executive Dooley backing off earlier statements in support of "merger." 

Since the election, County Executive Dooley's public stance on the issue has been somewhat muddled.  He has stated that "the city-county merger issue will not be one of my priorities in the next term," described reunification to the Post-Dispatch as "not a Dooley or a Slay thing," and argued that "It's got to be what the people want. And apparently, people are not interested in doing it right now."  Subsequently, though, he has clarified to The Riverfront Times that the "merger" topic is not "off the table," and that he is open to discussing the idea if it will help the economy of both the county and city, bring jobs and make the region better."

There is no doubt that any proposed reunification of the City and County is politically tricky, and that the public's input is critical.  Equally clear, though, is that moving the ball forward will also require strong top-down political leadership.  Merger may not be "a priority," but beginning to identify concrete solutions to the problems it is intended to address must be.  It is incumbent on all of the political leaders of our communityin the City, the County, Missouri, and Illinoisto work cooperatively to determine how to strengthen the region for the future.  That is certainly underway to some extent already; hopefully the focus will sharpen in upcoming months.

It is timebeyond timefor strengthened regional cohesion, whether that takes the form of formal consolidation or merely enhanced internal collaboration.  Either way, it's time for our region to stand together as ST. LOUISUNITED.


  1. I am hopeful that East-West Gateway will focus it's sustainability grant on this very issue:

  2. Do you know who or what group to contact regarding volunteering to assist with this issue or other ways to get involved?

  3. Asher78--I am going to try to find out more about the formation of the citizens' group I mentioned. In the meantime, I would encourage supporters of merger/consolidation to make their views known (ideally in writing) to Mayor Slay, County Executive Dooley, and their Alderman (for City residents) or County Council representative (for County residents).

  4. Thank you for the response... I will keep an eye out and will work on a letter to send. -Asher78

  5. Our group, St. Louis is a World Class City meets monthly and promotes re-entry AND statistical reclassification which would change nothing but our population stats. If you want to know more please take a look at our website: