White Paper: The Incredible, Shrinking “Metropolitan City of St. Louis”

By on March 8, 2019
Regionalism Drill  Down White Paper #2

by David Rusk
Special to ConstructForSTL.org 

The new government [Metropolitan City of St. Louis] would encompass the current geographic boundaries of the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County with a population of over 1.3 million residents, making it the 9th most populated city in the United States [emphasis added].

Thus forecasts the Better Together Plan for merging St. Louis City with St. Louis County.    Regaining St. Louis City’s stature as one of the USA’s most populous cities – fourth in 1870, still eighth in 1950 – seems to be one of the major sales pitches for the plan.

That prophecy also serves as a time machine transporting me back to the early 2000s when I was consulting in Louisville while the merger of the City of Louisville and Jefferson County was in its final stages.

“Louisville will instantly become the 16th biggest city in the USA,” civic leaders bragged.   (In the 2000 Census Louisville ranked 65th.)

“Really?” I asked.   “I don’t think so.   You’ll certainly be larger but by Census Bureau policy Louisville-Jefferson County will probably be ranked in the mid-to-high 20s.”

“Oh no,” they rebutted.   “We’ve been assured that we’ll be 16th.”

Came the next rankings of the USA’s 100 largest cities: merged Louisville-Jefferson ranked 26th.

Look at the Census Bureau’s rankings of the 100 largest cities from American Community Survey 2017.   The listing for “Louisville-Jefferson county metro government (balance) KY” shows it ranked 29th with a population of 621,349.    Yet Jefferson County’s 2017 population was 764,378.   What happened to the missing 143,029 people?    And what does this “(balance)” mean?

The missing 143,029 were residents of the 83 smaller municipalities within Jefferson County that maintained their independent status and did not join the merger.   This population was deducted from Jefferson County’s population (764,378) to yield the official population of the “Louisville-Jefferson county metro government (balance) KY” of 621,349.     

Indeed, as the table shows, that is the Census Bureau’s practice for all other city-county mergers where smaller municipalities did not dissolve into the merged entity – Jacksonville-Duval County FL, Indianapolis-Marion County IN, Nashville-Davidson County TN, etc.   The official “city” has a smaller population than the county because of the deduction of the populations of smaller, still-independent cities.

Rebranding St. Louis County’s 89 independent municipalities as “metropolitan districts” – even by constitutional amendment – will have no bearing on their legal character.

Article VI, Section 30(3)(1)(a)  of Better Together’s proposed amendment explicitly states that “[a] municipal district of the metropolitan city, which is hereby created, shall be a political subdivision, body corporate and politic, and municipal corporation, exercising and performing such powers, privileges, duties, and functions of the municipality necessary and proper …. [emphasis added”

In fact, the next Section 30(3)(2)(a) directs that “the governing body of a municipal district shall be the governing body of the municipality….”   Same corporate body, same elected leadership, same debts and obligations carried forward.

Unless Better Together is a Census Bureau “whisperer,” that’s exactly what would happen with post-merger St. Louis City and County.  Let’s outline a possible sequence, using 2016 population estimates:

  • Per Better Together, Metropolitan City would have a population of 1,309,985, combining St. Louis County (998,581) and St. Louis City (301,404), or about 10th largest city in the USA;
  • Per Census Bureau (scenario 1), the populations of  89 smaller cities within the county (676,434) would be deducted, leaving the officially recognized “Metropolitan City of St. Louis (balance)” as 633,551, or about 29th largest;
  • Per Census Bureau (scenario 2), in addition to the 89 smaller cities, the population of St. Louis City might be deducted as, notwithstanding other provisions of the constitutional amendment, “on January 1, 2023, the municipal district within the territory heretofore in the City of St. Louis shall continue its corporate existence as a political subdivision and municipal corporation. [emphasis added]”    That would effectively mean the official population of the Metropolitan City would be reduced to 322,142 (that is, the unincorporated portions of St. Louis County), or about 60th place; and
  • Finally, just suppose that unincorporated areas of the county, but with well-established identities such as Affton (20,307) successfully sought to municipalize and become their own free standing “metropolitan districts.”   The Metropolitan City officially would get smaller and smaller.   

In “The Incredible, Shrinking Man,” the 1957 science fiction-horror classic film, Scott Carey is exposed to a combination of a mysterious radioactive mist and insecticides that set off a chain reaction that is mutating Scott’s cells, causing him to shrink.   As he shrinks to doll house size, he must battle a tarantula twice his size.   Victorious, he continues to shrink until he can escape his basement by walking between the wires of a mesh screen.   Scott knows that he will eventually shrink to atomic size, but no matter how small he becomes, he concludes that he will still matter in the universe because, “to God, there is no zero”.

Or, in the case of the Metropolitan City of St. Louis, “to Better Together, there is no zero.”  

David Rusk is a former mayor of Albuquerque, NM legislator and federal official, who has consulted on regional issues in over 130 metropolitan areas in the USA as well as in Canada, Germany, England, South Africa and The Netherlands.    He is author of Cities without Suburbs (4th edition 2012), called “the bible of the regionalism movement,” and three other books.

Mr. Rusk began analyzing the Better Together report for ConstructForSTL as soon as it was issued. In this series of white papers he will be drilling down into items ranging from savings from consolidation, to size and ranking of the “statistical city”, economic development, planning and zoning, bond ratings, taxation, political representation, and Metropolitan Council composition.

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