Saint Louis County Would Benefit From City’s Return
In his most recent inaugural address, Mayor Francis Slay stated that it is time for the city of Saint Louis to reenter Saint Louis County, from which it separated in 1876. He’s right — it is time for the people of the Saint Louis region to once again consider repairing this split of 123 years.
First, officials should stop using the term “merger.” Slay’s website uses a much better term: “join.” There is no need for an all-encompassing merger of the city, county, every county municipality, and each fire and library district into one massive leviathan. Plenty of benefits would arise just from the city becoming the county’s 92nd municipality. It would eliminate many government redundancies and reduce the circular-firing-squad tax incentives that area cities engage in.
Conventional wisdom suggests that reentering the county would be an easy sell in the city and a hard one in the county. That assumption is questionable, however, because the primary effect of this change for county residents would be a tax cut. Saint Louis County does not break down its spending by incorporation status, but anyone familiar with county government knows it spends more money per capita on unincorporated areas. Adding 350,000 people to the county, all of whom live within an incorporated area, would vastly expand the county’s tax base without significantly expanding its government responsibilities. Result: A tax reduction for all county businesses and residents.
In 2007, Jackson County — which is dominated by Kansas City and three other large suburbs — spent $389 per person. That same year, Saint Louis County — which has a substantial unincorporated area and many smaller cities — spent $90 more per resident. There is a correlation between per-capita spending and the county’s percentage of incorporation — economies of scale and savings from consolidation of services cannot be ignored.
There are exceptions to every rule, of course. Some small suburbs in Saint Louis County with significant retail activity spend more per capita than Saint Louis city, even though they fall within a county. However, adding the city’s assessed valuation of $4,620,358,944 to the county’s $25,026,505,994, consolidating the benefits of economies of scale in tax collection, assessments, deed recording, etc, and spreading the tax rate among a wider group of taxpayers would result in a lower tax rate for the people of Saint Louis County.
This would obviously entail some expansion of county government responsibility and size, but not anywhere near the amount one might expect from increased population or assessed valuation alone. Every role the county would play within the city would result either from combining operations or replacing the city’s role as the provider of county-level services. There would be no new layer of government authority or duplication of services. Over time, it is likely that the county would take over certain positions within the city, such as maintenance of major arterial roads that serve both the city and county, like Forest Park Parkway, or management of some city parks, in the same way that the county runs Tilles Park in Ladue. These changes would stem from a drive for efficiency, however, not patronage or stimulus, and as a result would save taxpayer dollars, reduce aggregate government spending, and lower the levels of government employment in our area — three worthy goals. The separation of powers works well in the county, and would work just as well when and if the city rejoined the county.
Local governments in Missouri constantly try to use incentives to lure businesses from one city to another. Numerous examples exist of Saint Louis county municipalities using incentives to entice companies to leave the city, and vice versa. If Saint Louis city rejoined the county, however, those pressures would be lessened. And, if the city were required to become a sales tax “pool” city as a condition of reentry, those pressures would be lessened substantially. As a “pool” city, Saint Louis would have far less to gain from retail business incentives, and less to lose as well. There is a reason all of the well-known examples of eminent domain abuse in Saint Louis County have occurred in “point-of-sale” cities like Sunset Hills — those cities have financial incentives to replace homeowners with retail businesses.
The return of Saint Louis city into the county would not adversely affect the people of the county in any more significant a fashion than Florissant affects Ellisville. It would lead to lower property taxes, and reduced pressure for government to hand out development tax incentives. The people of Saint Louis County would be well-served by a return of the prodigal city.
David Stokes is a policy analyst with the Show-Me Institute, a Missouri-based think tank.