In 1876, 310,000 City residents tired of paying for services to 27,000 County residents voted on whether or not to separate the City from the County. With a margin of 12,276 to 14,142 the voters of St. Louis decided to not divide the region. However, after the results were challenged, a judge’s recount showed the divorce had passed. Subsequent efforts to reunite the region, beginning in 1926, have failed to rise above the divisive political process of the St. Louis region.
This short-sighted separation continues to plague the region’s economy and social relationships. From Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts, policing for profit, retail musical chairs, embarrassing crime statistics, the departure of a national football team, consistent corruption within tiny municipalities, conflicts of interests created by lawyers serving as city attorneys for multiple municipalities, to declining population—the mountain of evidence indicates that almost anything is better than the current structure.
Economically, St. Louis spends $2.38 billion on 115 governments. Over of a quarter of a billion dollars is spent on general administration alone ($281 million). Champ with 13 residents spends over $1,300 on general administration per capita.
Within the current structure, the region pays more elected officials (684) than the United States Congress (535). This high number results from an over-saturation of municipalities, 48 of which have less than 5,000 residents (23 less than 1,000). 43 municipalities sit on less than a square mile of land. 29 of their mayors won with less than a hundred votes.
In terms of social well-being, the region’s vast racial inequities result from a structure haphazardly formed through restrictive housing covenants which explicitly segregated the region until the case of Jones v. Mayer (1968)—originating from St. Louis—ruled housing covenants unconstitutional.
Compounding each of these dynamics is the fact that the region’s demographics continue to shift. Since 1950 the combined City-County population has grown by only 55,103. That’s 0.07% annual growth. The City’s population has declined by 63% from its 1950 peak of 857,000. From 2000 to 2012 The City and County lost 45,615 residents. Median household income in the County grew 1.6% annually while in the City it grew by 2%. The trends of decline in the City have begun to show in the County.
Instead of competing on a regional level in the age of globalization, local governments engage in petty fights over big box retail stores. Meanwhile, Nashville (unified 1962), Indianapolis (unified 1970), and Louisville (unified 2003), have begun to thrive on an elevated stage. Nashville’s workforce grew by 10% from 2010-2014. St. Louis on the other hand gets passed over for fiber, stadiums, amateur sporting tournaments, and company headquarters. In response, the region counter-intuitively sprawls further west.
For a detailed history of St. Louis we recommend Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City by Colin Gordon and St. Louis Politics: The Triumph of Tradition by Lana Stein.