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Chesterfield Council hears pro, con views on city-county merger

By: Jim Erickson

It was no surprise the proposed St. Louis City-County merger took up a major portion of the Feb. 4 Chesterfield City Council meeting even though the topic was not included on the agenda.

After all, Chesterfield has publicly opposed the idea of bringing the two entities into a closer working relationship and has resurrected the idea of seceding from the county. The latter proposal came from Mayor Bob Nation during an earlier dispute over how sales tax proceeds are distributed. It has received new life in the wake of the move to combine St. Louis County and the city into a “metro-city” akin to what communities such as Indianapolis, Louisville and Nashville have done.

A number of Chesterfield residents turned the council meeting’s public comment period into a sounding board on the plan by the Better Together organization to merge many, but not all, government functions in the city and county.

“This is a hostile takeover, not a merger,” declared Councilmember Barbara McGuinness [Ward 1] during her critical review of the Better Together proposal at the end of the meeting.

What may have come as a surprise, though, was that three of the nine speakers who addressed the controversial merger plan supported the idea.

One of those favoring the plan was Mike Hejna, a Chesterfield resident and business leader who has been active in the Better Together movement. Hejna asserted that there are many misconceptions about the merger plan but no doubt about the area’s stagnant population and high costs of duplicate services provided by the county’s numerous municipalities, some not as large in area or residents as a subdivision.

As Hejna cited statistics supporting his views, Nation interrupted, saying his time was up. 

The council’s policy allows individual speakers four minutes to state their case. A glance at the timing clock on the public speakers’ lectern revealed Hejna had been speaking about four-and-a-quarter minutes when the mayor halted him.

Chesterfield resident Marvin Kanne strongly supported the idea of Chesterfield withdrawing from St. Louis County and becoming its own separate county, suggesting that nearby West County communities may want to join that move. 

Other speakers described the merger plan as a tax money grab, the likelihood of property tax increases to cover other communities’ debts and Chesterfield’s having to give up facilities, including city hall, that local funds have financed. 

The Municipal League of Metro St. Louis has endorsed a strategy spelled out in the Missouri constitution calling for creation of a board of freeholders to develop a plan for any changes in the city-county governing structure. Chesterfield and other League members unanimously endorsed that approach at a meeting last month.

Both the Better Together proposal and the board of freeholders concept need a minimum number of voter signatures; however, the Better Together petition effort will need some 160,000 signatures because it calls for a statewide vote in November 2020 to change the Missouri constitution. 

The board of freeholders concept needs only about 20,000 petition signatures to authorize both St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and County Executive Steve Stenger to appoint nine eligible members to the board and the governor to appoint one.

Chesterfield City Administrator Mike Geisel said that while city employees will not be involved in gathering signatures, the city, as a member of the League, has petitions available for residents wanting to take part in that effort. 

If the board of freeholders does develop a plan, it would require approval by both city and county voters.

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