In Praise of Jennings
An overriding emphasis on Big Ideas and Big Changes can obscure the fact that most improvements in life happen in small doses and over time. Which is more likely to last, the whirlwind romance that ends at the altar after a few weeks, or the relationship that begins as a friendship, grows over time into love, and leads to marriage a year or two later?
It is the same with cities and governments. Planners may want to focus on the Big Proposal that is going to “reinvent” or “transform” the community, but those Big Plans frequently fail from the beginning. Often, it is the individual homeowner or entrepreneur who are the real change agents in providing useful economic growth and community development. Which would you rather have, Soulard or Laclede Town?
Right now, many people in Saint Louis are once again engaged in a conversation about the political make-up of our area. Should the city and county merge? Should the city simply re-enter the county? What to do about the county’s 91 municipalities and patchwork of fire, school, and library districts?
These are big and important questions and it is good that they are being discussed and debated. Without buying into the assumption that bigger is automatically better, let us hope that positive changes will come from this re-examination of existing arrangements, changes that will improve government services in Saint Louis as a whole. But if we focus only on the Big Idea, we risk overlooking benefits that smaller changes in government can have for Saint Louisans right now. One city in Saint Louis County, Jennings, is showing how small improvements under our current governmental system can add up to big rewards for people.
Over the past few years, Jennings has made two principal changes moving away from the idea that every city need stand on its own. First, it became one of the few cities that switched from a point-of-sale city to a pool city in Saint Louis County’s sales tax pool system. As sales taxes within the city declined, Jennings had two choices. It could make use of tax increment financing and other political tools to try to alter market forces, or it could join the pool. Pool cities benefit from economic growth wherever it occurs in the county. Pool cities are less likely to abuse eminent domain and TIF by forcefully locating retail development in targeted areas, and not to areas where the free market would naturally lead. Jennings chose to join the sales tax pool and engage in the regional economy, not just the Jennings economy.
More recently, Jennings chose to dissolve its own city police department and contract with the county police for public safety. This will allow the city to improve the overall quality of the police force serving its residents and save money at the same time. To say this is a win – win understates the significance of the change. Other local leaders, including Fenton mayor Dennis Hancock, have made this change for their cities and it has worked out very well for their citizens.
Jennings city officials deserve a great deal of credit for these changes. Joining the sales tax pool and contracting with the county for police services will save money, provide better public services, and avoid the destructive, TIF-fueled quest for “economic development” that is pitting city against city in Saint Louis County. These simple changes in Jennings are showing the other parts of the county the way to a future prosperity that maintains city pride and independence while thinking and acting like a region. That is a Little Idea worth celebrating – one that will provide big and lasting benefits.
David Stokes is a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, an independent think tank promoting free-market solutions for Missouri public policy.