Saint Louis University’s Catholic Studies Program hosted a panel on “Healing the City-County Divide” on Wednesday. The panel included St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and a group of professors at SLU. Slay and Dooley both spoke about the debate regarding the future of the city-county relationship going forward in the 21st century. This panel comes at an interesting time as debate heats up about a potential city-county unification that has been a contentious issue in the St. Louis area for many years.
“As we heard about issues about the possibility of more deliberation between the city and county and possible greater cooperation, we thought it would be good for SLU to host such a conversation because of where we are in the city and being able to bear our different academic perspectives from the different disciplines,” said Rev. Chris Collins, S.J., Director of the Catholic Studies Program at Saint Louis University. “I thought it would be good as a Catholic, Jesuit University if we brought to bear some of the principles of Catholic social teaching that might shed new light on the issues that get stale. It is just a different framing of the question.”
The original divide between the city and the county occurred in 1876 over concerns of the city funding the growing infrastructure of the county region. Since that time, there have been two previous attempts to merge the city and the county, but voters stopped both attempts.
There are currently 115 local governments and 90 municipalities between the city and the county districts. According to Better Together, a project sponsored by the Missouri Council for a Better Economy, the costs associated with funding all 115 governments (excluding airport and water service fees) has reached a staggering $2 billion per year.
“What I ask everyone in the room is to keep an open mind in terms of what is being talked about and how we are going forward here,” Mayor Slay said in his opening remarks. “First and foremost, nobody has the right answer in terms of which way to go and how to get there or to do anything for that matter. The Better Together effort is a data-driven effort to look at how our tax dollars are used and see if there can be some efficiencies that can be used… to get a better benefit out of those tax dollars for the benefit of the entire region.”
According to the Better Together website, the project is, “an effort to bolster economic growth in Missouri, especially the St. Louis region, through issue education to the public, improvements in public education, and reforms in local and state tax policy and related issues.”
While there have been no official talks about a city-county merger, thy city and county have had partnerships that include: the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Zoo-Museum District, the Metropolitan Sewer District and a partial merger of the two jurisdictions’ economic development agencies.
Proponents of the merger believe the potential unification of the city and county would allow for shared services, create a sense of local unity and change the perception of St. Louis locally and nationally. Opponents of the potential unification are concerned about a dilution of political influence, costs associated with the unification and the potential for St. Louis County to assume St. Louis city’s debt if the two areas unify.
After Dooley spoke, the professors on the panels discussed some of the economic, historical, philosophical and theological implications and thoughts to consider in this possible unification process. After remarks by all of the respective panelist, the floor was open to questions about the Better Together efforts and questions about a city-county unification. The questions ranged from perceptions of the St. Louis services to some of the underlying racial tension between the city and county.
“I guess more than anything, I wanted some answers to some basic questions. Questions about how will a merger place the people who are most vulnerable at a disadvantage,” said Stefan Bradley, a panelist and professor in the History and African American Studies departments. “The questions that I had were concerning the very stark disparities in access to resources that are available to some of the ‘least of these’ and when I say ‘least of these,’ I am speaking about the young people whose school districts have closed, been underfunded and often times these happen to be African Americans.”
This event is one of many discussions about city-county unification that has been going on in the St. Louis area and further discussions are planned for the future.