City And County Merger Effort Roils St. Louis
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
St. Louis is having a moment - not just the city but the nearly 90 towns that comprise the region around it. That's because backers of a merger plan say residents of city and county governments would be better served by joining together. As St. Louis Public Radio's Jason Rosenbaum reports, there is significant opposition to the potential merger, and it falls largely along racial lines.
JASON ROSENBAUM, BYLINE: At a hotel straddling the border between St. Louis and St. Louis County, Arindum Kar is telling a packed crowd about a region at a turning point. He's frustrated that St. Louis has seen its population and economic fortunes dwindle as small police departments and municipal courts are seen as sometimes targeting residents. For Kar, a lawyer who worked on the merger plan, combining city and county governments is a way to put St. Louis back on the map and help deliver a better, more equitable life for 1.3 million people.
ARINDUM KAR: Fixing it will not be easy, but the alternative - to do nothing while people suffer - is simply not acceptable.
ROSENBAUM: Kar helped unveil a plan earlier this year creating a metro city responsible for fixing roads, bolstering public health care and luring big companies. More pointedly, it would eliminate dozens of police departments and municipal courts, many of which have developed reputations for raising revenue from low-income residents with onerous traffic fines.
That practice faced increased scrutiny after Michael Brown's shooting death in Ferguson in 2014. St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger argues that creating one police department and one municipal court would ease the region away from a system that many fear has become a national embarrassment.
STEVE STENGER: We have a great deal of predatory ticketing, predatory revenue generation. That's a problem that I think we've seen? And we've seen some try to come and address that? And it's been wholeheartedly rejected by certain members of our community.
ROSENBAUM: What St. Louis is considering isn't new. Cities like Indianapolis, Nashville and Louisville have all combined their city and county governments. Merger backers like Richard Bose note that those cities saw their population and economic fortunes rise. And he thinks it forces urban and suburban residents to make big decisions together.
RICHARD BOSE: I think it puts all of us more on the same team. It doesn't mean we have to agree on anything ever. But it forces an investment in other people's problems.
ROSENBAUM: But here's the thing. Efforts to merge St. Louis and St. Louis County through a local vote have failed over the years. So backers of this plan are waging a multimillion-dollar campaign to change the constitution in a statewide vote. That move is sparking outrage both from some Republicans, who control the General Assembly, and Democratic politicians in St. Louis. After all, a statewide vote means the new government could be established, even if city and county residents reject it. Democratic State Representative Raychel Proudie represents Ferguson.
RAYCHEL PROUDIE: A lot of us - and I'm one of those people - see it as disrespectful, almost, as if we don't know what's in the best interest for us.
ROSENBAUM: Some African-American leaders argue that a solidly white voter base would make it more difficult for minority candidates to win elections. Case in point - Nashville, Indianapolis and Louisville have never had an African-American mayor. Merger advocates, though, say that a new 33-person council would give African-Americans a strong voice at the table.
While the merger plan would consolidate police departments and municipal courts, it would not combine disparate city and county school districts. Merger proponents are seeking thousands of signatures to qualify for a statewide vote. If they're successful, Missouri residents will decide what St. Louis government looks like in November 2020. For NPR News, I'm Jason Rosenbaum in St. Louis.
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