Believe me, it pains me to say so.
I had pinned all of our problems- the crime, lack of resources, and high taxes- on the uncoordinated fragmentation of our government. For years, I’ve hitched my hopes onto the vague idea of regional consolidation. The main obstacle to those hopes always appears to come from the west- from those white bastions of upper-middle class conservatism: Chesterfield, Maryland Heights, Ladue, Creve Coeur, Olivette, Crestwood, Frontenac, and even from up north in St. Charles.
There’s a cultural divide that transcends race in St. Louis. It’s the divide between city and suburbs. Everything the county does is anathema to the ideal city life to which the urbanite aspires. We in the city typically view the county as a suburban nightmare, a place where people barricade themselves away in flimsy McMansions, cheaply built in throwaway subdivisions. They cordon themselves off behind massive 6-lane-wide stroads, walkability be fucked. They eat uninspired meals at chain restaurants built in the middle of vast, ugly parking lots. They spew paranoia and fear from the comment section of the Post Dispatch. The suburbs are where culture goes to die.
On the other hand, the county sees St. Louis city as an overspending cesspool of childish liberal policies which ignore economic reality and eschews any notion of responsibility for the nation’s highest violent crime rate. The county sees consolidation as one thing: a bailout for the city. And to that they emphatically say, “No thanks!”
To be fair, these are hyperbolic descriptions of the animosity which exists between St. Louis City and County, but you can’t talk about consolidation without acknowledging its existence. Any talk of consolidation will have to navigate this City/County dichotomy.
What’s the problem with St. Louis?
St. Louis City is suffering from the effects of a national trend toward suburbanization, a trend which continues today. The advent of the automobile, along with the availability of cheap land in the county, incentivized middle class families throughout the mid to late 1900s to move into the suburbs. This wholesale loss of population and tax revenue for the 66 sq. mile city has depleted the urban core and led to a concentration of poverty and violent crime within city limits, a trend which continues to chase residents and business away from the region.
As it turns out, a dense urban core is essential for the success of any particular city. Over the past 4 decades, there has been an obvious trend: Those cities which maintain their dense urban core grow and succeed, and those which do not shrink and fail. St. Louis City has lost hundreds of thousands of people over the last 4 decades. As a region, we are in a state of stagnation. We lag behind fellow rust-belt cities Nashville, Louisville, and Indianapolis in population growth and job creation. Violent crime is spiking. Our police force is underpaid, under-trained, and despised by many as unprofessional. Police protests put us in the news on the regular. All of us who call this place home can tell we are circling the drain.
What’s wrong with our local government?
In 2014 Better Together Stl released a series of studies which attempted to answer a simple question: “Why does a region with world-class resources struggle to thrive and compete in a global economy?” The studies drive home a truism that has been accepted by many people: Our fragmented government is preventing our success as a region.
The argument for consolidation goes like this:
First, the sheer number of municipalities in the St. Louis region, 92, represents an unwieldy duplication of services which places far too heavy a burden on our tax payers. One of BT’s studies was a comparison report which argues that we spend more per-capita on government services than either Louisville or Indianapolis, both consolidated cities.
Second, due to the arbitrary nature of our borders, tax and service disparities have arisen between our wealthy and poor communities. Many municipalities have had to resort to regionally destructive measures in order to fund their governments. Some have raised revenue through predatory court and fee systems. Most other municipalities fight among themselves over a limited supply of sales tax revenue. This is a zero-sum-game which prevents the whole region from growing. As St. Louis City struggles to maintain its infrastructure stock and provide services to its residents, the poorest in the region, most of the middle class has moved out west. This has left the city with no option but to continually increase sales taxes, which are already some of the highest in the country.
Third, the lack of a single cohesive government has incentivized internal competition and has de-incentivized the development of a regional plan for economic development. Unlike fellow rust-belt cities Louisville, Nashville, and Indianapolis, our labor pool is shrinking and jobs are harder to find. We’ve watched as corporation after corporation has left our city, taking jobs and institutional knowledge with them. This trend must be reversed if we want to survive.
Can consolidation save us?
Better Together and many St. Louisan’s (previously including myself) have pinned their hopes on consolidation as the solution to the previous section’s problems. If we can consolidate our many municipalities into one cohesive force, we will be in a much better position to turn this city around.
Through a consolidation effort, it’s thought that we can:
1) Take advantage of economies of scale and make our government more efficient and less expensive
2) Decrease disparities in government services between rich and poor areas. By utilizing revenue from the rich areas of our region, we can properly invest in the poor areas and help improve the lives of poverty stricken communities with mental health services, lead abatement, and functioning utilities. This could go a long way towards reversing the violent crime trend.
3) By consolidating, we can move forward with a cohesive economic plan and, hopefully, catch up with Louisville, Nashville, and Indianapolis.
I considered these points to be facts. I neglected all other solutions to our situation in St. Louis and focused my frustration on the issue of consolidation. I became incensed whenever an online plea for consolidation was met with a snide comment from a county resident along the lines of, “The Liberals in the city have destroyed themselves and need a bailout from us responsible Conservatives in the county.” This cynicism, combined with the lingering political hatred stirred up in the 2016 presidential race, breaks down any possibility of intelligent debate.
This is why I have set out on a research campaign to determine, for myself, the way forward when it comes to consolidation. And while I still hate when the debate gets boiled down to Liberal vs Conservative, I no longer see it as one sided as I used to.
After a fair amount of research, those previously stated arguments for consolidation aren’t holding up so well.
Maybe consolidation is NOT the solution
1) Consolidation would provide more efficient and less expensive government
Would a merger actually save money? This is what Better Together has claimed in their report which compares the per-capita spending of St. Louis, Louisville, and Indianapolis. I’ve written about this here. They determined that, in 2013, we spent more per capita on government services ($1809.71) than either of the two consolidated cities of Louisville ($1094.76) and Indianapolis ($1208.11).
This seems like a slam dunk for the government efficiency argument. But another organization called Cities Strong, an offshoot of the St. Louis municipal league, has funded its own report. This Cities Strong report directly contradicts the Better Together report.
Cities Strong argues that Better Together neglected to acknowledge $589,000,000 of government services provided by Indianapolis’ Unigov. This failure happened because Better Together used the 2013 adopted budget of Indianapolis to determine expenditures but did not include, among other things, public health expenditures of up to $226,000,000 which is spent on governmental activities by a separate, yet tax funded, entity called the Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County. Instead, Cities Strong referred to the standardized Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports(CAFRs) of St. Louis City, County, and the HHCMC. These CAFR’s are a better source of financial information because they are standardized, unlike the adopted budgets. Using these standardized sources you’ll see that, in 2013, tax payers in Indianapolis funded 43% of the $226,000,000 spent by the HHCMC on public health. Taking into account these neglected expenditures, Indianapolis residents actually pay $1,854.70 per capita which is more than St. Louisans pay! Cities Strong argues that having several municipalities in the same region creates an environment of competition which forces these governments to keep costs lower.
It is an attractive idea to assume that consolidation would allow the elimination of duplicative services and the advantage of economies of scale in St. Louis to improve efficiency and decrease the cost of providing services. But in reality, things aren’t guaranteed to play out that way.
Take into consideration the consolidation of Louisville. Louisville made a deal with labor unions that the future united Metro government would honor and maintain all previously negotiated salary agreements. This meant that pay scales were often equalized among workers in newly consolidated entities. This limited some savings. The most notable consolidation was between Jefferson County Police Department and the Louisville Police. The combined police force did not provide any immediate savings for the new government.
It could be argued that Louisville and Indianapolis are not useful when comparing cost of services between consolidated and unconsolidated cities because neither of these cities went into a consolidation effort with government efficiency as a goal. They went into it for economic development reasons. Furthermore, both Louisville and Indianapolis’ consolidations barely even count as consolidations at all because most of their incorporated cities and governmental entities were left in place. However, Philadelphia, which merged in 1952, is a complete consolidation. There are no separate municipalities within it. Despite this fact, Philadelphia still has severe financial problems. According to the 2016 CAFR for Philadelphia, the city spent about $3.8 billion, or around $2400 per-capita. That’s more than St. Louis, Louisville, or Indianapolis! Clearly there’s more factors in play than the magnitude of governmental consolidation.
Comparing St. Louis to Louisville, Indianapolis, Nashville, or Philadelphia can’t tell us for sure whether or not consolidation will save us money. But the comparisons should make us suspicious of either claim.
2) Consolidation would fix tax and service disparities
The average income of a resident in St. Louis City is $36,000 per year. In Chesterfield, the average income is around $95,000 per year. St. Louis City struggles to contain the externalities of extreme poverty, namely crime, drug addiction, and vacancy. Residents of Chesterfield enjoy low property taxes while paying for most of their government with sales tax revenue supplied by residents of neighboring municipalities.
North St. Louis is a bloody, hemorrhaging cesspool of gang violence and murder. Gun shots are heard regularly in such south city neighborhoods as Bevo Mill, Benton Park, and Gravois Park. Crime is destroying our city, and we can’t afford the necessary steps to fix it. St. Louis City spends most of its general revenue on police, pensions, and bond obligations. This leaves little behind to invest in such things as mental health services, drug rehabilitation programs, or lead abatement. Without these investments, it’s doubtful we will be able to get our crime problem under control.
For these reasons, it’s no wonder that many have seen consolidation as a potential way out. It seems so easy to leverage the tax revenue of our entire region and invest it in the areas which need the most improvement. Unfortunately, this is an idealistic pipe dream.
Let’s appreciate the political reality of any merger plan: We would have to convince people in the suburbs, people who specifically moved to the suburbs to get away from St. Louis City, to accept a larger consolidated governmental entity taxing them and spending that money in an area of people with whom they have radical ideological differences. Do you think this is going to work?
We only have to take a look at our neighbors to see the most likely outcome.
Louisville consolidated in 2003 by way of local referendum. In order to convince the people of Louisville to agree to a merger, compromises had to be made. 83 of Jefferson County’s incorporated cities were allowed to continue operating as they did before (taxing residents, providing services, holding elections). In fact, the “consolidation” of Louisville could be better described as a consolidation of Louisville City and the unincorporated county areas. Special taxing districts were preserved, and the city of Louisville was restructured into an “urban service district” with its own tax rate and service mix. This did not improve the situation of service disparity.
The story was similar in Indianapolis which consolidated by state legislation in 1970. Similar to Louisville, the consolidation didn’t touch previously incorporated municipalities which continued to tax and provide their own services. The city and county continue to craft their own budgets. Again, no improvement.
Nashville, in order to assuage the fears of their county about higher taxes, had to create two separate service districts (Urban Services and General Services). The county paid lower taxes for “General Services,” which they provided and paid for themselves. The city was still maintained by higher taxes in the “urban Services District.”
You have to ask yourself, does St. Louis have the cohesiveness and political will to do better than Louisville, Indianapolis, and Nashville? Realistically, the answer has to be no.
3) Consolidation would improve economic development
This is the big one.
Both Louisville and Indianapolis marketed their mergers as a way to improve economic development. A way to end intra-regional competition, nominally increase their population, and put everybody on the same page when it comes to economic development.
How did that work out for them?
It’s tough to say for certain. The economic fortunes of the entire country have changed drastically throughout the last few decades. It’s hard to determine what has resulted from changes to local government and what has resulted from national and state level forces.
Louisville was doing fairly well compared to the rest of the country in the 1990s, before the merger. Part of its argument for consolidation was the idea that removing bureaucracy and streamlining government would make economic development easier.
After the merger, Louisville had both wins and losses. The city lost the headquarters of Brown and Williamson. Several manufacturing plants closed, along with layoffs for several more companies. There were wins as well, as Citigroup and UPS created many new jobs. But these jobs came at a price: substantial tax incentives. Whether this new tax-incentive-induced economic development benefited the tax payer is questionable. Throughout the rest of the 2000s, Louisville has slightly underperformed the rest of the nation (although it has outperformed St. Louis). Whether its successes have resulted from governmental consolidation is uncertain. This Brookings Institute Report on Louisville’s economic development did mention consolidation as one of the factors which have led to Louisville’s economic recovery since the 1970s. However, the number one factor mentioned was the redevelopment of Louisville’s airport as the center of UPS’s Logistics. This happened before the consolidation. Despite economic development of the urban core, most of the population growth is still in the suburbs.
The story is similar with Indianapolis. They went into a merger mostly with an eye towards redeveloping downtown and making Indianapolis a destination city, a goal near and dear to my heart, and this goal was largely a success. Indianapolis built Market Square Arena, a new State Office center, and other developments. However, like Louisville, this came at great tax payer cost. This development, while being expensive, also took a lot of property off the tax rolls, and Indianapolis is struggling today. Despite the development downtown, the suburbs outside Indianapolis are growing faster than the city.
Nashville seems to be doing just fine, perhaps this is a win in the consolidation checkbox?
Really, it’s hard to say what helps and hinders economic development. Nashville could be doing better for a variety of reasons. They’ve definitely become a music destination, attracting plenty of tourism and positive press. At the same time, they have a great innovation program in I2R and are trying creative things in government. They have something called “The Hub.” The Hub is a new online dashboard designed to provide citizens with real-time information and responses to their concerns. Perhaps the key to Nashville’s success has been their ingenuity and public image rather than the structure of their government.
It’s worth mentioning that Louisville, Indianapolis, and Nashville are all doing better than St. Louis economically. Just taking into account job creation, each of these three cities has added more jobs as a proportion to the labor pool than St. Louis (in order of best to worst, Nashville, Indianapolis, Louisville, St. Louis). They each have vibrant tech incubators and have done a better job redeveloping their downtown districts.
It appears that the primary benefit which consolidation has conferred upon downtown revitalization efforts is the result of consolidating high value property and developing a larger revenue pool. This contributes to financial stability and increases bond ratings which allows the safe issuing of bonds for the purpose of redevelopment.
My goal certainly is to reinvest into the urban core, and consolidation does seem to help in that endeavor. However, we need to be honest about how consolidation helps that cause; It’s primarily the result of capturing more money and putting it under one roof.
Maybe this is something that only I care about or thought consolidation would help with, but I’ll just give a short example of how consolidation might actually increase rather than reduce urban sprawl.
There was a debate in Louisville between where to build a bridge, East across the Ohio River or downtown. Empirical evidence shows that subdivision development follows highways. In Cincinnati, they built a bridge and suburban development spread outwards from that, so the East Bridge would arguably cause more Urban Sprawl in Louisville. The Louisville mayor wanted downtown bridge, but the Judge-Executive of the County wanted the East Bridge. They had to compromise and settled on both bridges. Had Louisville been consolidated at the time, the county would have held more power and there would have been no voice for the urban Louisville area. Changes in constituency removes the ability of urban core to protect its interests.
Dilution of special interests.
The previous section points out a key effect of consolidation that white people in the city might not be paying enough attention to. That is the dilution of the minority vote. Think about it: if we consolidate our entire region, suddenly the majority of the voter base becomes white middle class Republicans in the suburbs. The progressive movement in St. Louis would lose its power. The black vote in St. Louis would lose influence. In Louisville, the black vote was diluted from 33% of the electorate to around 15% after merger. How do you think that push towards a police oversight committee with subpoena power is going to go after consolidation?
If you want to improve the city… how is injecting a huge majority of people into the voting pool who prefer to live in the suburbs going to help urban objectives?
It’s probably not.
OTHER POSSIBLE NEGATIVES
Consolidation is often called a “Big Box Solution.” The idea is that it’s very difficult to manage a large bureaucracy. What often happens is that power is delegated out into smaller departments. Consolidation is sort of like drawing a big box around a bunch of smaller boxes. Opponents of consolidation argue that this amounts to creating a class of elites which control the big box. In a strong mayor system, such as Louisville, consolidation has made the office of mayor much more powerful. The mayor commands a larger bureaucracy, has a larger revenue pool to draw from, and this naturally incentivizes more people to run for mayor. Since the voting pool is much larger, it de-incentivizes the door-to-door style of campaigning in favor of a conspicuous media presence. This puts the power of running a mayoral campaign in the hands of those who can raise lots of money- the businesses, banks, realtors, law firms, healthcare companies, media companies, utility companies etc.- and out of the hands of regular people. As we’ve seen with recent statewide political campaigns, reality and pragmatism often takes a back seat to rhetoric and attention seeking. Our Governor was elected because he blew up a car with a machine gun. Our President was elected because he was good at talking shit on TV. What will our mayoral campaigns become?
Let’s wrap this up. The goal of consolidation is ostensibly to revitalize the economy, stabilize the urban core, and ensure the fair distribution of government services.
While consolidation might make the economic and development of the urban core easier by consolidating revenue and making the city more financially stable, it comes at a cost. First, just because a lot of tax revenue is under one roof doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be spent in the urban core. The voters in the urban core become a minority and lose some of their power, so it’s harder for them to push for investment in their communities. The same goes with decisions which might contribute to urban sprawl.
When you take into account the consolidation of Nashville, Louisville, and Indianapolis, there hasn’t really been much improvement in government efficiency. This isn’t to say that St. Louis couldn’t learn a lesson from these cities and create an agreement which DOES improve government efficiency. But, perhaps I’m being a pessimist, but I don’t think this will be the case.
Consolidation also has not helped to fix tax and service disparities in the other cities mostly because compromises had to be made in order to convince suburbanites to go along with consolidation. Instead of St. Louis City being its own municipality, it’s likely it would just become its own taxing district, solving nothing. In fact, it’s more likely that the poor and underrepresented would lose even more power as their vote becomes diluted by the suburban residents.
Finally, St. Louis is a strong mayor system, just like Louisville. Consolidation would make the campaign for mayor much more media and narrative driven. In an already disgusting political climate, do we really want to create another elite position for narcissists to aspire to?
Any decision on consolidation would, obviously, have to be made once we see an actual proposal. But just judging from the consolidations of other cities, I don’t think we should be placing all of our hopes on consolidation to save us.
Instead, it’s time we take a good hard look at our own city government. It often seems as if our aldermen are voting for bills which they barely understand. Cara Spencer recently introduced BB130 in order to reverse the damage done by a previous bill which reversed a lease agreement for the Scottrade Center and put General Revenue on the hook for repairs and improvements to the Scottrade Center. This previous bill was rushed through committee by Reed and voted on by the Alderman without recognizing the sort of financial damage it could do. How many other stupid decisions have been made that weren’t caught?
How can we make it our city more efficient without consolidation? How can we better provide services to our poor? I’m certain that there is a way forward which does not involve consolidation. In the meantime, all this talk of consolidation is just an excuse to be lazy and not put in the leg work.