As most everyone is aware by now, Better Together has developed recommendations for moving our region forward that call for merging the St. Louis City and County administrative, elected, economic development, and police functions into one centralized body. Their intent with these recommendations is to “remove the barriers that impede our community’s ability to thrive” and to create a safer, more equitable, and efficient city.
We agree that if we were going to choose the perfect government structure for our region, we certainly wouldn’t have chosen the one we currently have now. But it’s hard not to feel a sense of whiplash; a feeling that a train has already left the station on a route decided by a small group of people and, like it or not, for better or for worse, we are now all along for the ride.
Maybe this was done intentionally to avoid the kind of complex, drawn-out debates between city, county, and multiple municipalities, each with their own needs and agendas, that can so easily grind any potential progress to a halt or send it entirely off the rails.
But while it’s true that no one ever built a statue of a committee, it’s also true that no one ever built a successful, equitable, and efficient form of government that serves all its citizens without first taking into consideration the thoughts and needs of all key parties involved. You’ll hear the voices one way or the other. And judging by the tenor of the voices heard throughout our region now, we’d argue that it’s better to hear them earlier rather than later.
We’d like to add our voice because as an organization, Beyond Housing probably has more experience in improving the efficiency of municipalities and creating stronger communities than any other organization in the St. Louis area. Our ten years of work in the 24:1 Community—the 23 municipalities that make up the Normandy School district—has given us a lot of firsthand experience and valuable insights which are highly relevant to this proposed merger and the future of our region.
The first point we’d like to make is about inclusivity. When we created the 24:1 Initiative, we didn’t just come up with a plan and impose it on the community. We went out of our way to hear the voice and input of the experts—the people who live there—holding no less than 450 town meetings with local citizens, mayors, business owners, and many other stakeholders. We asked them what was right with their community, what was wrong, and what they needed most. We listened, and we learned. Those learnings formed the foundation of a plan to create strong communities, engaged families, and successful children.
If we had acted solely on our own or only half-heartedly listened to the voice of the community, we wouldn’t have been very successful. Most likely, many valuable resources already in limited supply would have been wasted in a misguided effort to create change from the top-down without the embrace and participation of the community.
The second point is one of planning and execution. Like Better Together proposes, consolidating services played an important part in our work. We worked at the direction of the 23 mayors to consolidate services to provide savings, better efficiency and services to citizens—consolidating 12 municipal courts into two main hubs, 13 municipal police departments into two forces, and coordinating services to gain greater economies of scale.
But that’s where the similarities end. Consolidating government and services was part of a much broader picture, not the primary focus. Never did we make the assumption that a restructure or collaboration alone would magically solve the other real issues that needed to be addressed. If we had, we wouldn’t have accomplished one tenth of what we have in our ten years.
Too often we tend to look for simple answers to complex issues. But creating real, meaningful, and lasting progress—whether in a single community or an entire region—requires a comprehensive approach. From our own experience, as well as data and learnings from national thought leaders, we know there are a handful of critical areas necessary to create successful communities, which include housing, education, health, employment, and economic development. They are all interrelated; each one impacts the other, and addressing any one area on its own can do only so much.
This is why we employ a holistic approach to community building. To combat a shortage of quality, affordable housing, we worked with several municipalities and numerous stakeholders to build or rehab over 400 units of high-quality, affordable housing.
In education, we know there are many external forces that can prevent children from thriving in school. These range from being hungry to a lack of school supplies, lack of clean clothes, fear of being homeless, and many other factors. This is why we have 14 staff people called Family Engagement Liaisons embedded in each of the schools in the Normandy Schools Collaborative to address the many non-education issues students and families face—so every child can have the same opportunity to succeed.
On Page Boulevard, we spearheaded a 12-acre development to address several critical stated needs of the community including health, economic development, and jobs. This included the first grocery store in 30 years, bringing access to affordable, healthy food to what was previously a food desert, as well as a senior center and health center. A multi-plex cinema, café and coffee shop, first-ever bank and fair loan center helped to further stimulate the economy. We partnered with Great Rivers Greenway and St. Louis County to improve the physical environment as well, adding bike trails and a public park, and improved sidewalks, bus stops, and lighting.
We mention these accomplishments not to be self-serving but to provide context. Our mission and work has taught us a lot about what it takes to make real progress and about addressing the very issues that Better Together wants to improve. Though our work is far from over, enormous progress has been made. The alternative is continuing to ignore the real issues we face. We’ve all seen what comes from that. Which is why, we believe, our region is still searching its soul for answers today.
Of course, we want the good things that Better Together states. But while we applaud Better Together’s mission of creating a more just, equal, and prosperous region for all, the proposed merger as it stands right now does little to solve the deep-rooted issues that hold our region back.
In fact, it threatens to do great damage by erasing years of hard-won progress in areas like the 24:1 Community. Where citizens currently have direct access to their local government, the proposed merger will remove all autonomy and control from those who know their community best, and place it in the hands of outsiders who have no real or meaningful understanding of each community’s unique issues and needs. That’s not a step forward; it’s a giant step backward, and a bitter pill to swallow for all those who’ve worked so hard to create real change.
If we want to truly come together, a real discussion about how to improve our individual as well as our collective future would have been the most logical place to start. Regardless, this is where we are. Hopefully this new threat of uncertainty can add some urgency and quality to a sincere discussion.
Maybe we should begin by asking ourselves, ‘how can we best live together?’ What will it take for every child in our region to have a successful life? What will it take for every community to be a place of opportunity? How can we best serve our own interests without sacrificing the interests of each other, with the goal of improving our region overall?
We believe the key to economic development of our region is the advancement of all families, and all communities. To create a more “just and prosperous region” like Better Together states, we imagine a region where quality, affordable housing can be found everywhere and where every child has access to quality education—two ingredients we know from experience are essential to create successful communities and regions.
After all, a region can only advance so far while large sections within it are left to slide further into decline. The issues of inequity and disparity aren’t just the problem of some—these problems impact us all. They create a litany of undesirable outcomes and headlines that further decrease our region’s perceived value in the minds of the very people and organizations we want to attract.
On the subject of housing, there is great disparity in housing values, causing segregation of populations by wealth in dramatic ways. In St. Louis County alone, the median value in Clayton is $590,800 compared to $70,000 in the Normandy School District; The value in University City is $238,500 compared with $65,000 in Jennings. Since the tax base of a community is driven in large part by property value of homes, this creates a gigantic disparity in funds that can be allocated to public education. While money alone does not create a great education, it surely is a component part of a success school system. It’s not about taking away the value of homes in Clayton; It’s about ensuring all our children have an opportunity to live out their dreams and aspirations. Your zip code should not be your destiny. More housing funding of all types from local, state, and federal resources should be allocated to places of need like Normandy and Jennings.
In education, if we are asking for state-wide ratification of a change in St. Louis City and County, we should also demand a change in the statewide school foundation formula to ensure greater equity in school funding. At its heart, the formula is based on local property tax assessment values and a disinvested region can never create equity on its own. In recent years, the state has recognized these inequities and has created a base-level funding allocation for some regions. However, it is minimal and does not create equity, as thriving districts still rely on local property taxes to create well-funded schools, leaving low-income families dependent on funding for their schools that are far below those in wealthier districts. If all schools were financed equally, how would school outcomes change?
Together is a wonderful theme, as is everything the word implies. But what is the use of coming together on paper if we continue to remain worlds apart, segregated along the same old boundary lines no matter how unintentional? What is the use of coming together if it does not serve the best interests of all, and hurts the very areas that our region desperately needs to improve if it hopes to improve itself?
If we truly want a brighter future for greater St. Louis, imagine if we really came together. Not just on paper but in a more substantive and meaningful way to create a plan that benefits all, and truly moves us forward. Imagine if we came together, rolled up our sleeves, and addressed the real issues holding us back to make this home that we share truly great—once and for all.
That would be better yet.