January 08, 2014 - There may be no official movement for a city-county merger yet, but an opposition group has already formed to fight it.
Common Sense for St. Louis, a new anti-merger group founded by Crestwood resident and activist Jennifer Bird, has about three dozen members. It will have its first public meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 15, at the St. Louis County Library headquarters,1640 S. Lindbergh Blvd.
The city and county have been slowly merging some of their operations, including their police bomb squads and the Economic Development Councils last year. To Bird, the end goal is obvious.
"It's not a conspiracy if it's true — and I do realize that we are swinging a baseball bat at a ghost," she said, contending that proponents of a merger will not admit they are working toward a merger.
Nonprofit organization Better Together, formed last fall and financed by Rex Sinquefield, has begun studies into six areas in which the city and county could collaborate: public finance, public safety, public health, parks and recreation, infrastructure and administration and economic development.
Despite what that looks like, however, Better Together board member and County Executive Charlie Dooley told the Call that the Better Together announcement is unrelated to a merger, which would require a public vote.
"I cannot talk about (the city-county merger) because there is no city-county merger," he said. "For the next 16 months, we will be gathering data and information about six factors in the region, and that's all it is. We've said on numerous occasions, it's not unifying the city and the county, it's not the city re-entering the county, it's not a merger, it has nothing to do with that."
Better Together has submitted Sunshine Law requests to county municipalities and fire districts for their line-item budgets, to see where they spend their money.
Bird is the Gravois Township Republican committeewoman and a state committeewoman for the Republican Party, but said the group is unrelated to her work for the party and includes members from across the political spectrum.
"I'm not funded by a billionaire — this is truly grassroots," she said. "This is me putting my debit card in the gas pump and punching in my number and going to meetings and talking to people."
Opponents like Bird find it hard to believe that Better Together has no predetermined opinion on a merger.
"It's just a study?" she asked. "Does the name not imply something? It surely sounds like your desired end result is already there. Are we going to not have common sense here?"
Although proponents of a merger point to operations that could be merged or streamlined and the cost savings from eliminating duplicate layers of bureaucracy, Bird said in her experience, governments overestimate cost savings and underestimate potential costs when describing programs.
The studies have spurred residents and officials in south county to wonder how a merger might affect local areas of governance like public schools and fire districts.
Tesson Ferry Township Republican Committeeman John Judd urged the Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors at its Dec. 18 meeting to formally oppose any merger.
"That's the point of their secret meetings that the press aren't invited to — we don't know what they have for plans to merge districts," he said. "But if you asked our hardworking firefighters here, they probably don't want to be part of the greater St. Louis city-county, mega-fire district that takes away our local control, because we do a good job here in Mehlville."
Judd is a member of Common Sense for St. Louis and said the group's goal is to keep the question of a merger off the statewide ballot this year, where special interests could encourage the rest of the state to vote on an issue that primarily affects the city and county.
"They have millions upon millions of dollars to educate voters through snazzy TV commercials: 'City-county merger? Good. Vote yes,'" he said. "Our only hope is to keep this off the ballot in 2014. If it was just the city and the county voting on it, it's dead. Over 70 percent of county voters oppose this thing."
At the Mehlville School District's legislative meet-and-greet in December, Board of Education member Larry Felton asked Dooley's south county liaison, Jonathan Boesch, what effect a merger could have on county school districts and whether school boards would get any input in the event of a merger.
The Better Together studies purposely exclude looking into school districts because "there was too much going on there to get them involved," Boesch told Felton.
He views the Better Together studies as a way to look at how levels of government in the city and county operate.
"If we're going to invest $2 billion on roads, infrastructure, firefighters, what should we be getting back? Can we be more efficient?" he said. "Every so often, it's great to question those kinds of things."
Editor's note: This article was updated to reflect the correct address of the St. Louis County Library headquarters.