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Better Together, CitiesStrong trade volleys in skirmish over city-county merger

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
By Steve Giegerich
December 28, 2015


Factions in a conversation about a city-county merger began sparring on Monday in a verbal battle that is expected to intensify in the coming year.

The combatants are the pro-merger group Better Together and a coalition of anti-merger municipalities united under the banner of CitiesStrong.

The weapon of choice for both sides:

Data.

The statistical Fort Sumter launched Monday by CitiesStrong underpins the deeper ideological divide between the two groups.

CitiesStrong contends Better Together — financed in part by the Rex Sinquefield-backed Missouri Council for a Better Economy — represents another cudgel wielded by the millionaire financier to impose his will on state and regional government.

Better Together counters that the St. Louis County Municipal League is funding CitiesStrong to protect its own interests along with those of elected and appointed officials in 90 communities across the county.

CitiesStrong on Monday morning publicly questioned a 2014 Better Together study that compared the St. Louis region unfavorably to the unified city and county governance in Indianapolis known as “Unigov.”

Citing side-by-side data from the two regions, Better Together had concluded that the annual cost of municipal services to residents of St. Louis and St. Louis County is nearly $600 higher than that paid by residents in Marion County and Indianapolis.

CitiesStrong, which announced itself last week as a nonprofit committed to “local decision-making,” charged that the Better Together outcome relied on flawed methodology.

According to an analysis of the findings on behalf of CitiesStrong by the Public Policy Research Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Better Together reached its conclusion without taking into account $589 million in greater Indianapolis governmental spending.

CitiesStrong maintains the annual municipal government costs of Indianapolis-area residents in fact exceeds that of St. Louisans by $44.99 when outlays for sports and convention venues, and public health are included.

Mark Tranel, the author of the CitiesStrong report and the director of the UMSL Public Policy Research Center, said Monday that the research uncovered “significant gaps” and “discrepancies” in Better Together’s side-by-side comparison of Indianapolis and St. Louis.

Tranel said he based his findings on an examination of Indianapolis and Marion County expenditures over a six-year period.

The Better Together study, he said, essentially focused on a single year of spending.

“Our study was far more comprehensive,” said Bert Gates, the former Shrewsbury mayor and president of the CitiesStrong board.

In what is likely to be the first of many disagreements, Better Together issued a strong rebuttal.

Dave Leipholtz, director of community-based studies, acknowledged that Better Together did not include spending on sports stadiums and health care facilities in the 2014 Indianapolis report.

He said because an “apples-to-apples” comparison is all but impossible, Better Together fashioned its report as a “benchmark” to evaluate the similarities and differences of the regions.

Leipholtz labeled the CitiesStrong study “an effort to find some differences that just aren’t there” and offered even stronger language on the provenance of the group itself.

“When an organization is run by seven former and current municipal leaders and funded by the (municipal league) you can’t expect them not to advocate for status quo,” said Leipholtz.

“We’ve seen the amount of money the munis are willing to spend to maintain the benefits of the status quo. We’ve seen it in traffic tickets and sales tax revenue, and now they’re using their money to fund CitiesStrong.”

Gates, in a sharp response, said the genesis of CitiesStrong was a desire on the part of its members to preserve “responsive government with a local flavor.”

The philosophy runs counter to the one he believes pushes his group’s adversary in the merger discussion.

“I think you have Better Together commissioning studies to fit its agenda, and I think their agenda is Rex Sinquefield’s agenda,” Gates said.