Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch April 19, 2016.
Neighborhoods and local accessibility are arguably the largest assets that St. Louis has to offer. Folks who live around you are also the same folks whom you see at school events, the grocery store and on the street. That tight-knit feeling is why so many people love St. Louis. Yet, our largest strength is, at times, also our largest weakness.
While we cherish our neighborhoods, we tend to forget that people in other neighborhoods are just like us. They too want the best schools for their children, accessible shopping and safe streets. Yet, because of an invisible border that says you live in Municipality A and I live in Municipality B, we begin to believe that significant differences exist between us.
Over generations, differences pile up and solidify: white and black, poor and rich, private and public, unsafe and safe. We start making assumptions about people who do not live around us. They, them, their versus us, we, ours. We lose sight that beneath all of these labels beats a human heart just like the one currently beating in our own chests. We neglect the fact that life is not about just getting by or living comfortably but about thriving. Yet, we cannot thrive unless our neighbor does, too. What diminishes one neighbor diminishes all of us; for, these invisible barriers do affect the beatings of a heart. Life expectancy can differ by 18 years just across Delmar Boulevard.
Yet, that lack of neighborly love may not stir some — money talks after all. So let’s talk money. The St. Louis City-County region spends over a quarter of a billion dollars annually ($281 million) on general administration alone. In addition to losing two football teams in 29 years, Fortune 500 companies in St. Louis have dwindled from 23 in 1980 to nine today. Now consider the fact that in the past 20 years, $2 billion of public tax money has been diverted to developers as subsidies for private developments through tax increment financing. To be fair, businesses do have to navigate 573 taxing districts in the city-county area. The point is that in the age of globalization, we’re fighting each other over sales taxes and moving retail stores a mile down the road while other cities like Nashville (unified 1963) compete globally.
More importantly, what about the costs to our democratic values? Only 9.46 percent of voters turned out to the 2014 municipal elections in which 95 of the 432 polling places ran out of ballots. In that term 29 mayors were elected with a hundred votes or less. On the “bright side,” only 63 locations had ballot shortages in 2016. However, let’s make things more disturbing: 18 polling places are in the same building as the municipal police headquarters. 450,000 outstanding warrants from municipal courts originate from one-third of those same 18 municipalities. In sum, through a faulty election system combined with profiteering, mayors attain office with just a few votes from a disengaged and distrustful electorate.
Still, only something personal will move some. Is it the fact that your children and grandchildren are not moving back? The city and county lost 45,615 in population from 2000-2012. What about the reality that you pay a premium for ineffective, inefficient and inequitable services? We spend $601.60 per resident more than Indianapolis-Marion County and $714.95 more than Louisville-Jefferson County. Do you like that friends, colleagues and the public generally perceive your hometown as prejudiced and decaying?
When we created St. Louis Strong, we started with the goal of bringing people together. We’re not going to create a new structure for St. Louis. You are. We’re here to take your thoughts on combining different entities, simple re-entry of the city into the county, a hybrid re-entry, a borough plan or UniGov. We will also work with municipal officials so far as their own self-interests do not take priority over their constituents’. This is a public invitation for dialogue.
We can and will change this structure that injures your neighbor, ruins the economy, threatens democratic values and hurts you. At the very least, 86 percent of residents have never voted on a valid unification ballot. The myth that St. Louis cannot overcome its weaknesses is over. We believe by daring greatly, individuals create a stronger future. Through courageously coming together and honestly confronting different views today, the community of St. Louis will thrive tomorrow.
This will be excruciatingly hard. So what? As Mark Twain observed, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear — not absence of fear.” Step up. Stop talking and start walking.
Jake Hollander is the founder of St. Louis Strong (stlstrong1764.org), a nonpartisan nonprofit that seeks to create a healthier sense of community and promote a stronger economy for St. Louis by advocating for the unification of the region.