Better Together Has Zero Facts to Back Up Its Most Crucial Claims

Backers tout rosy claims about the county and city being better off together -- but offer nothing to back them up.
Backers tout rosy claims about the county and city being better off together -- but offer nothing to back them up. RYAN GINES

Do you believe in the benefits of big bureaucracies?

This question goes to the essence of whether the new metro city proposed by Better Together might live up to the group's eye-popping claim — unveiled February 19 — that more than $4.9 billion can be cut from government budgets in the city and county over the next decade.

To me, the reasons to oppose the Better Together plan if and when it arrives on the November 2020 statewide ballot have nothing to do with dollars. It's oppressive to have our local governance dismantled by state residents who don't live here. It's chilling to consider how much damage will be done to the influence of the black community. It's cruel to emasculate proud cities, large and small, that have in some cases flourished for centuries. Then there's the hubris in dismissing as unacceptable an earnings tax approved by 72 percent of city voters. Hidden agendas abound.

But let's also accept that the status quo is broken. The city is crime-ridden and financially in peril. The county is plagued with balkanization and, like the city, is stagnant and governmentally challenged.

And hey, $4.9 billion isn't chump change. That's definitely end-justifies-the-means money. It's certainly worth a look.

I spent an hour by phone last week with Dave Leipholtz, BT's director of community-based studies, and some members of his team. The BT staff was accessible and professional, with none of the dismissiveness that has characterized some of BT's public posture.

But here's what I found: They just don't have the goods. There are no facts whatsoever to support the notion that forming the proposed metro city will cut government costs at all, much less save billions and billions.

BT is basing its projections on assumptions, not facts. Those assumptions are derived from the predictions of city and county budget officials who, even setting aside biases and even respecting expertise, have produced nothing more compelling than assigning an arbitrary alleged-savings factor of one percent — that would be an arbitrary three percent, less two percent for inflation — and to present it as financial analysis.

BT officials believe it's just common sense that if you take a city office that's performing a function and combine it with a county office that's performing the same function, it only stands to reason that some overlapping costs will be eliminated, some management will become expendable and some efficiencies of scale will be realized.

As the rural Missourians upon whose votes BT is counting might say, that dog won't hunt. They might as well replace the $4.9 billion number with $4.9 trillion. Like the earlier claim that a new Metro St. Louis would magically be the size of Dallas, it's just a string of words with no meaning.

Using real numbers, not assumptions, a wide range of academics have studied this very topic. Here's what University of Illinois scholar Megan C. Kuhlenschmidt concluded in 2015 after an extensive review of real-world consolidation efforts:

"Structural consolidation is often proposed as a quick fix when in fact it often has weaker outcomes than advertised. The premise that a larger number of local governments is inherently bad and will result in increased taxpayer expense, lack of efficiency, or lack of responsiveness is not supported by available research on the issue."

There's a lot more data where this came from. Yet when I asked BT's folks about the numerous scholarly works that directly contradict their assumptions, they didn't counter with fact-based research of their own. Rather, they argued simply that none of that applies because St. Louis is attempting something so much bigger than anyone else has ever tried.

In other words, trust us.

I don't. Even if we accept the premise of dispensing with actual facts and work with our guts, here's what mine says:

Big bureaucracies are inherently less efficient and accountable than little ones. It is counter-intuitive to assume, as BT does, that if you combine governmental agencies, they'll streamline themselves into more well-oiled machines. That's just not how they roll.

Some of BT's anticipated savings would come from eliminating the city offices that exist as a consequence of its absurd dual status as a city and a county. That's something some of us have long advocated eliminating by having the city re-enter the county as one of its municipalities. You wouldn't need a mega-merger to achieve it.

But even here, caution is advisable. Merging agencies doesn't change the amount of services that must be delivered. You can combine the city and county medical-examiner offices, for example, but you're still examining the same number of dead bodies.

To me, though, the most revealing hole in BT's savings claim is this: They could not, when I asked, provide a single, solitary specific financial fact regarding the centerpiece of their overall plan: combining all of the area's police departments into one.

They cannot or will not say how many police officers' positions, nor even how many precincts, would exist after the merger. It's all gray matter, presumably to be decided by the citizenry down the road.

That doesn't work.

Which police department do you think serves its citizens best right now: Kirkwood or the city? Clayton or the city? Florissant or the city?

You'd be hard-pressed to find many folks who would say that the hulking, scandal-ridden St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department is the winner. So, do you think a still larger bureaucracy — with no provision for a civilian review board, by the way — is the answer?

I don't. I also believe the ginormous department would almost undoubtedly cost more money, not save it. Either the salary-and-benefit-and-training-and-equipment standards of the top departments (say that of St. Louis County Police) would apply to all officers (the logical choice) or the area's best-compensated-and-supported police would take a huge collective haircut. Not a great plan.

Are there too many small police departments in the county right now? Yes. Should some be eliminated because they're unable to provide enough resources to pay and train and equip officers adequately? Yes.

But those issues can be addressed within the existing mechanisms of county government, if there's political will. Nothing about forming a mega-city will inherently accomplish that.

Cooperation and consolidation are two very different things. In policing, area agencies already collaborate with the Major Case Squad, the criminal-justice database REGIS and areawide 911. At one point in history, such collaboration didn't exist, but functions were merged without major governmental surgery.

The notion of completely re-inventing policing in St. Louis is just one piece of BT's puzzle, but for now, it serves as the most compelling proof that the plan is hopelessly flawed. St. Louis can achieve far more progress by having its existing cities and counties work together better. Not by being slammed together, against the will of the people.

Bigger isn't necessarily better when it comes to government.

And facts beat fiction every time.

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977 and recently made his triumphant return as a columnist after a seventeen-year absence. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @rayhartmann.

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