This is a post about governmental fragmentation in the St. Louis region. It’s a big topic, so I wasn’t able to fit everything into one post. I’ll be splitting it up into several posts:
First, I’ll summarize the pro-consolidation research done by Better Together Stl.
Then I’ll describe the arguments against consolidation using previous cities as case studies.
Finally, I’ll give my opinion on what I believe the way forward should be.
The roots of fragmentation
In 1876, St. Louis City voted to separate itself from the rest of St. Louis County, becoming an independent city. At the time, most of the population lived in the urban core except for a few sparsely populated outlaying communities. As most of the tax money was generated within this urban core, they determined that it wasn’t fair for that money to be taken from the city and spent on communities in the countryside. With city limits set at present day Skinker/McCausland, the city would be able to keep its own tax revenue. As a result, when people moved west, they found themselves in unincorporated St. Louis County. Missouri law makes it very easy to incorporate a new municipality. All it takes is a community of at least 500 people to vote a simple majority, and a new municipality is formed. Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, municipalities sprang up throughout the county at a breakneck pace.
Unfortunately for St. Louis, the 1949 Housing Act inspired a widespread migration into the suburbs. Federally subsidized loans made it very inexpensive to build new houses on cheap land and most of that cheap land lay out west past the Skinker/McCausland borderline. The middle class of St. Louis began moving, en masse, out of the city into the many municipalities in St. Louis County.
Today, there are 90 independent municipalities, 57 police departments, 81 municipal courts, and 43 fire districts within the St. Louis region. The ways in which they cooperate, deliver services, and fund themselves has been pieced together in a reactionary way over the course of generations. The resulting hodge-podge of ordinances, courts, police departments, and tax plans is complex and difficult to navigate. To say that there is a problem is a truism. It’s hard to believe that anybody would purposely choose a system like this.
Why is fragmented government in the St. Louis region a problem?
In general, the fact that our region is split into so many municipalities makes it difficult for us to concentrate our resources on accomplishing big things. For example, right now the Scottrade Center needs $138 million in repairs. This financial burden will be carried by the 300k people in the city rather than spread out among the ~2 million people in the surrounding area, all of whom stand to benefit from improvements to this regional asset. There are analogous situations in the county.
The costs of general administration include basic expenses for operating municipal facilities such as utilities and maintenance, wages and benefits for elected officials, city administrators, and city attorneys, and liability insurance. We are governed by 684 elected officials in the St. Louis region. St. Louis County and City spent a combined $281,078,709 on general administration in 2014. That means that in 2014 every person in the St. Louis region spent, on average, $213.16 on administration costs. As an independent city, St. Louis City serves as its own county, overseeing a judicial circuit and collecting its own property tax revenue. In 2014, it spent $19,462,000 just on these county functions alone. That’s about $60 per City resident just to duplicate county functions. How much more money are we spending, as a region, on redundant elected officials, municipal buildings, and insurance? Prior to consolidation, Louisville-Jefferson County saw a trend of increasing government spending. That trend has stopped since the consolidation of its general administration duties in 2003. In 2014, Louisville spent $95,913,714 on general administration costs. That amounts to $126.73 per person, 41% less than we spend here in St. Louis. This leads one to believe that Louisville’s consolidation led to a more efficient and less expensive government. Looking beyond just General Administration costs, Better Together determined that St. Louis spent about $1809.71 per person in the delivery of municipal services. To compare, Indianapolis spent $1208.11 and Louisville-Jefferson County spent $1094.76.
How do we pay for our governmental services? Unlike Indiana and Kentucky, which levy flat sales tax rates of 7% and 6% respectively, Missouri allows municipalities to levy local sales taxes in addition to the state sales tax rate. The raising of sales taxes provide a politically advantageous way to raise local municipal funds without directly taxing the voter base of that particular municipality. The St. Louis region gathers 36.7% of its total revenue from sales tax (city: 22.9%, county: $47.16%). Perhaps Jefferson City should impose caps on sales taxes?
In St. Louis City and County there are 82 municipal courts. Of these 82 courts, 1 is St. Louis City Municipal Court, and 1 is St. Louis County. The remaining 80 courts lie in municipalities throughout St. Louis County. I mentioned in the last section that St. Louis City and County each serve as their own judicial circuit. It is the job of a presiding judge in each circuit to oversee all of the courts in that circuit. On average, a judicial circuit in Missouri has 8.6 courts. In St. Louis County, there are 81 municipal courts that must be overseen by a single presiding judge. This lack of oversight manifests itself in situations where certain municipalities illegally bring in up to a third of their revenue from court costs and fees. This typically happens in poor and majority black municipalities. Do we all remember Ferguson?
On average, a municipal court in St. Louis County costs $223,149 to operate yet brings in an average of $711,506 in revenue from fines and fees each year, for an average net revenue of $488,357. Courts in the St. Louis region accounted for 46% of all fines and fees collected statewide, despite being home to only 22% of Missourians. How can we trust a court system which appears more like a for-profit business rather than a vital aspect of our society?
Policing in our region is also complicated. 60 municipalities (including St. Louis City and County) have their own police departments. 32 of them contract out their police work with either St. Louis County PD or the PD’s of neighboring municipalities. Most St. Louis police departments are not accredited by either CALEA or MPCCF (accrediting agencies) because the State of Missouri does not require it (the state requires individual officers to be licensed, not their departments). The myriad of police departments have differing levels of training, pay, benefits, and equipment. There are 21 separate dispatching services handling 911 calls throughout the region.
In St. Louis, we spend $355.20 per capita on police service. Indianapolis spends $242.02 per capita, and Louisville spends $257.06 per capita. This tends to imply certain inefficiencies in our policing system.
A predatory courts system and a fragmented, mostly unaccredited network of police departments does not lend itself to the trust of the people. When the people become disenfranchised and stop cooperating with the system, the system does not function as well. We all suffer from the resulting increases in crime.
Can we trust Better Together?
I have leaned heavily upon Better Together to draw my conclusions. I should point out that many people have argued that Better Together is not an unbiased source of information. For starters, the name of their organization, Better Together, sort of speaks for itself. They are partly funded by our regional overlord Rex Sinquefield and, for many people, this is enough to cast suspicion upon the whole operation. Others have questioned the veracity of Better Together’s findings. In 2015 an organization called Cities Strong commissioned a report by UMSL’s Public Policy Research Center which refuted a claim made by a Better Together Comparison report which had asserted that Indianapolis residents paid ~$600 less per capita on government services than we do here in St. Louis. Cities Strong pointed out $589,000,000 of Indianapolis expenditures which Better Together neglected to acknowledge.
Better Together supporters generally responded by saying that an apples-to-apples comparison between Indianapolis and St. Louis is impossible and everything neglected by Better Together was neglected by design to better compare the relative cost of our governments.
I can’t be certain that Better Together is unbiased. I will say that the breadth of information presented by Better Together is hard to ignore. Cities Strong has only produced one report which was critical of a single aspect of Better Together’s vast provision of studies. It’s also worth mentioning that Cities Strong is an offshoot of the St. Louis County Municipal League. This is an organization operated by several municipal leaders in the county; they stand to lose their positions should consolidation happen. They aren’t exactly unbiased either.