Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch January 14, 2016
We have all heard that there is too much fragmentation in St. Louis. Duplication, waste and inefficiency abound, and there is no way to bring about change because the kings and kingdoms are firmly entrenched.
With worldwide focus on Ferguson, and municipal courts under scrutiny, a new structure laid out on a blank sheet of paper offers an opportunity for a timely discussion. Now, more than ever, St. Louisans are saying, “Anything is better than what we have.”
Let’s start by combining St. Louis County’s municipalities, reducing the number from 90 to seven. The boundaries of these new municipalities would be those of the St. Louis County Council districts, each with an approximate population of 143,000. We’ll call them boroughs.
Each would have an elected mayor, council and local control to keep government close to the people. Each borough would have a police and a fire department, thereby reducing the number of police departments from 57 to seven, and fire departments from 43 to seven. Municipal courts would be reduced from 81 to seven.
Each borough would control its own planning and zoning, public works, trash pickup and similar local services. Highways, parks, police, fire and health services offered within the borough would be maintained locally. Local services would be provided by local government, and citizens will know and have access to the “cop on the beat.”
Yet we are one metropolitan area. To coordinate local governments, in lieu of county government there would be a council of seven mayors, and the council would retain a CEO, much like a professional city manager. With the input and consent of the council, the CEO would appoint seven-member coordinating boards, with one member from each borough for police, fire, highway, health, parks and other regional functions. Each board would oversee central services.
For example, the police and fire boards would be tasked with establishing recruiting and training programs and setting pay standards. The police board will oversee the dispatching of police, crime investigation and lab and emergency services.
By eliminating a number of executive offices, an expanded pool of applicants will become available, as higher pay can be offered for a new wave of qualified executives. With a nonpartisan, merit system/civil service approach, jobs will open for a more dedicated team of civil servants.
This brief overview necessarily leaves a lot of details for discussion and development. Chief among them are revenue sources and distribution of tax dollars — always complex and controversial subjects. As a basic proposition, however, each borough would control the property tax collected within its jurisdiction, while sales taxes would be distributed evenly among the seven boroughs to ensure a base-level to support essential services.
A sound plan that goes to a vote of the people should include a transition committee to assist with implementation, solve problems and fine tune the structure as unanticipated issues arise.
You might be thinking: Why not include the city of St. Louis in the planning? The answer is that we can. The city would add two more boroughs. The population of each city borough would be slightly greater than the population of those formed in St. Louis County. To equalize the population, the dividing line in the city would be along Interstate 44.
This works well with regard to the tax base, as downtown and the Central West End would be in the northern borough, and will help support the smaller but developing tax base going north.
Yes, pensions and other snags must be worked out, but this is doable.
Reasonable people differ on the tax savings that can be realized through such a restructuring, but most agree that it would be substantial. To create a metropolitan government for St. Louis that would be efficient and effective would be a real achievement for the region, and would make St. Louis the envy of American cities.
With the savings, who knows? Increased funding for education could become available. But that is another story.
Gene McNary, a Republican, served as St. Louis County executive from 1975 to 1989. His son, Cole McNary, is a former Republican member of the Missouri House.