St. Louis County Municipalities, Better Together or Apart?

The non-profit organization, Better Together, recently release a comprehensive report, "The Will to Change", which poses a key St. Louis question: “Why does a region with world-class resources struggle to thrive?” One major reason is racism.

Racism which is perpetuated by public policy and mass media results in racial division and exclusion. Institutional racism affects access and opportunity including outcomes in municipal and other courts. Local news stations disproportionately show photos or videos of black people participating in crime, even minor offenses such as shoplifting. Watching the news, one might easily get the false impression the White people don't regularly shoplift or commit other crimes.  

Between 2013 and 2014 there were 767 mostly white overdose deaths from heroin and prescription painkillers. According to Time magazine, 90% of heroin users are white and therefore the majority of heroin dealers are white. The news rarely talks about the white, thug, drug dealers that sold the drugs which caused their death. In fact, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stinger and St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar wrote letters of support for a money laundering drug dealer. If 767 people overdosed, you can imagine how many drug addicts there are. Certainly many of those drug addicts are committing crimes to fund their habits, but strangely, their faces usually don't appear on the evening news.

Many of the 90 municipalities that comprise St. Louis County were created with an emphasis on keeping black people and others out. Restrictive covenants, misinformation, denial of financing, and racial steering were among the tactics used to maintain white only neighborhoods. In the past, the fact that St. Louis County contained 90+ municipalities was a non-issue. That is until a number of St. Louis County municipalities' population became majority black. 

Fifty-five percent of Black Missourians live in either St. Louis City or County which represents twenty-nine percent of the St. Louis City/County total population. Thirty-one of the ninety St. Louis County municipalities are majority black populated, they include:

St. Louis Municipalities with majority black populations percentage rounded to nearest whole number
Bellefontaine Neighbors 73%

Bel-ridge 83%

Berkley 82% Beverly Hills 93%
Black Jack 81% Cool Valley 85% Country Club Hills 91% Dellwood 79%
Ferguson 52% Flordell Hills 91% Glen Ecko Park 92% Greendale 69%
Hanley Hills 96%  Hillsdale 96% Jennings 90% Kinloch 95%
Moline Acres 92% Normandy 70% Northwoods 94% Norwood Court 94%
Pagedale 93% Pasadena Hills 68% Pasadena Park 61% Pine Lawn 96%
Riverview 70% Uplands Park 96% Velda City 95% Velda Village Hills 99%
Vinta Park 64.9 Vinta Terrace 73% Wellston 95%  

There are other St. Louis County municipalities that have significant black populations such as Hazelwood 31%, Breckenridge Hills, 33%, University City 41% and Belnor 46%. 

Those concentrated numbers if utilized effective can provide Black people living in those communities greater control. Combining resources and eliminating repetitive functions does have its advantages, but do they outweigh the cost of having less self-determination and control?  I'm skeptical. The City of St. Louis has a majority black population, but most of our city leadership is white. Resources are not fairly allocated and more emphasis seems to be put on solving and eradicating minor crime in downtown, the Central West End and other areas more likely to be frequented by whites, while fewer resources seem to be devoted to solving more serious crime in North St. Louis.

Some of the major issues raised in the report include:

Internal Competition – There is competition for resources within various neighborhoods and communities within municipalities. Merging won't end the competition for amenities. Tax dollars in the City of St. Louis are not evenly distributed and have been allocated mostly to white areas. Even the majority of public dollars spent on projects on the Northside have gone to white developers, which will most likely result in black residents being displaced.

TIF – Tax increment financing (TIF), a public financing method that is used as a subsidy for redevelopment, infrastructure, and other community-improvement projects, originally began as a tool to redevelop blighted urban areas, but over time became corrupted as a tool for private developers to fund their projects. The most blighted areas within the Greater St. Louis Area rarely benefit because projects usually occur in locations considered more desirable.

Municipal Court Fines – The Ferguson Protest revealed to the nation what local legal professionals and others already knew. Municipal courts didn't just recently start operating as revenue generators, they have operated this way for decades. Professor T.E. Lauer, a law professor at the University of Missouri published a stinging indictment of the municipal courts in 1966, titled, "Prolegomenon to Municipal Court Reform in Missouri". Judges, the Missouri Courts in general, and local media pretended that they hadn't realized how bad the problem was; of course, they knew.

Many lawyers begin their careers working within the municipal court system, some of those lawyers became municipal court judges and some of those judges became Circuit, Appellate and maybe even Supreme Court judges. Instead of acknowledging that the municipal court system had become flawed, many disingenuously acted as if they were surprised that St. Louis area municipal courts were acting as predatory revenue sources. The predatory municipal court system provided generous income to both legal professionals and municipalities.

Service Disparity – Merging municipalities won't automatically bring services to underserved communities. I regularly pass through two intersections that have non-functioning street lights, MLK & Euclid, and MLK & Sarah. The same municipality that claims it doesn't have money to fix lights is spending millions to raze Kiener Plaza, not because it was in disrepair or non-functioning, someone decided it was time to remodel.

Economic Development – I am 50 years old and was born and raised in North St. Louis. The City of St. Louis restricted economic development and many believe that the "Team Four Plan" was followed in spirit, even if it was never made official policy.

Does a real a problem exist?

Is St. Louis County really that different from other neighboring counties. St. Louis County is bounded by three other counties, Franklin, Jefferson, St. Charles, and the City of St. Louis. Let's compare St. Louis County with the other three bordering counties. 

St. Louis County, is Missouri's largest county, has 90 municipalities and a population of 1,003,362 per the 2015 Census Bureau population estimate, (11,148) average per municipality.

Franklin County has 12 municipalities an additional 11 unincorporated communities and a population of 102,426, (8,536) average per municipality.

Jefferson County has 24 municipalities but has a total of 82 cities, towns and other populated places, and a population of 224,124, (10,188) average per municipality.

St. Charles County has 24 municipalities and a population of 385,590, (16,066) average per municipality

St. Clair County is the largest in Illinois closest to St. Louis County. St. Clair has 32 municipalities, 11 unincorporated and census designated communities and a population of 264,052., (8,252) average per municipality.

When St. Louis County is compared based on the average population per municipality within a county, it doesn't look much different than neighboring counties. In fact, other than St. Charles, it has the largest average population per municipality than the others. The only thing that distinguishes St. Louis County is a large number of majority black municipalities. Merging those communities into others could dilute political power and control. 

Meacham Park  

In 1991, the predominantly white community of Kirkwood annexed Meacham Park, a historic black neighborhood in unincorporated St. Louis County. The merger was approved by large margins in both communities, but problems soon arose.

Not long after the merger, Kirkwood invoked eminent domain to take over large swaths of Meacham Park in order to build a Wal-Mart Supercenter and other commercial developments. Eventually two-thirds of the neighborhood was taken and Meacham Park’s population fell by 30%. The community’s mostly black, mostly poor residents numbered less than 800, and they were swept into a city of more than 27,000, only 7% of whom were black. Many people felt cheated out of their land.

Cookie Thornton was a Meacham Park resident who fired shots during a Kirkwood city council meeting, that killed five because of a dispute with municipal officials.

In its 2013 Annual Report, the city’s official Human Rights Commission wrote that it “continued to monitor the relationship between the City of Kirkwood and the Meacham Park neighborhood. The issues are long standing and deep, they need attention.” A Kirkwood subdivision still had bylaws prohibiting African-Americans from owning homes there in 2013, the unenforceable covenant stated, "African-Americans cannot occupy a building unless they are servants or employees".

In theory, merging municipalities appear to be a good idea, but as the Meacham Park example points out, the stronger community might take advantage and even change the character of the entire community.