THE CITY OF ST. LOUIS REENTERING ST. LOUIS COUNTY
Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Public Policy Administration
University of Missouri-St. Louis
In 1876, the cosmopolitan City of St. Louis separated itself from the larger St. Louis County, seeking an even more prosperous future unburdened by the County’s rural rubes. Since the early 20th century, leaders in both the City and County have had second thoughts, generating an ongoing conversation about some type of City and County reunification.
In recent years, the option discussed most often is for the City to shed its status as a separate county and to reenter St. Louis County as the latter’s 90th municipality, thereby retaining its municipal autonomy. If that seems like a relatively simple reform, think again. Here are four issues that would need resolution. All stem from the City’s ceasing to be its own county or, put another way, merging the County of the City of St. Louis with St. Louis County.
First and most nettlesome is that, according to the Missouri Constitution, the state’s trial courts, known as circuit courts, are organized by county. These courts handle both felony cases for those accused of violating the state’s criminal code and civil cases such as contract disputes and personal injury claims when both parties are Missouri residents. For the criminal docket, counties are also responsible for providing jails for those unable to post bail or who are deemed too dangerous to release before trial.
If the City is no longer simultaneously a county, its judicial circuit, corrections facilities, court clerk functions, subpoena processes, and prosecutorial duties would revert to St. Louis County. Since the City currently spends much more per capita on the judicial process than does the County, this would mean shifting a considerable part of the tab to current County taxpayers. It also means the City’s loses control over prosecutorial decisions including which offenses merit the most attention and it also creates a single combined jury pool for the now expanded County.
Second, the City’s other “county functions” such as recording deeds and collecting local taxes are organized much differently than their counterparts in the County. With the exception of property assessment, the City has separately elected officials in charge while the County uses civil service appointees. Precisely how should these county duties be transferred to St. Louis County?
Complicating matters are the employment rights of those currently working in the City’s county office. The 2002 amendment to the Missouri Constitution giving the City home rule authority over these county functions states that “in the event of any…revision…which shall reorganize any county office and/or transfer any or all of the duties, power and functions of any county officer, all of the staff of such office shall be afforded the opportunity to become employees of the city of St. Louis with their individual seniority and compensation unaffected and on such other comparable terms and conditions as may be fair and equitable.” Would similar positions in the expanded St. Louis County government satisfy this provision or would the City’s municipal government be required to add them to the municipal payroll?
Third, the City’s municipal government operates other activities typically organized at the county level in Missouri. One major example is public health. The City’s Department of Health executes public health programs like lead control throughout its own jurisdiction. No existing municipality with the County has its own public health unit. Instead, the County’s Department of Health performs these functions for both the incorporated and unincorporated areas. Should the City’s Department of Health be eliminated with the County’s Department of Health assuming its responsibilities or should the City be the only municipality to have a separate health unit?
Fourth, if the City rejoins the County, its residents gain the right to vote for County office holders including representation on the County Council. Should the County’s current seven council districts be enlarged to about two hundred thousand residents each, making them the most populous state or local legislative districts in Missouri? Or should the Council expand, say to nine districts, maintaining the present resident/representative ratio? Whatever the decision, St. Louis County, already trending Democratic, would become even more solidly so.
City reentry into the County? It is far from simple.