Two of Saint Louis County’s most recognizable municipalities are engaged in discussions of a merger. Clayton, the county seat and region’s second downtown, and Richmond Heights, the area’s shopping and transportation nexus, have been considering a merger since November 2004. A Joint Study Committee was established consisting of equal representation from both cities, and that committee is closing in on issuing its final recommendations. If the JSC recommends moving forward, both cities’ elected bodies would have to agree to put the measure on the ballot, and then voters of both cities would have to approve the merger. A merger would benefit the residents of both communities and improve local government services for the residents and businesses.
The rationale behind the merger is fairly simple: the commercial property tax base of Clayton and the retail sales tax strength of Richmond Heights would combine into a new city with an extremely strong local economic foundation not held hostage to downturns in any one sector of the economy. Richmond Heights currently receives over 50 percent of its city revenues from sales taxes and just 6 percent of its revenues from property taxes. Clayton receives 21 percent of its city revenues from property taxes and 20 percent from sales taxes, though much of that is from restaurants, not retail stores. This commercial strength would go along with the stable residential neighborhoods in both cities. A merged city with shopping centers like the Galleria, a business district as successful as Clayton’s, and neighborhoods as diverse as De Mun and Lake Forest would be able to provide excellent services to residents at lower tax rates for residents and businesses.
The combined suburb would have a population of 25,500 residents. That total includes approximately 2,000 Washington University students in dorms who require almost no local government services. While that total population might be big for Saint Louis County, it’s easy to be big in a county that has 21 municipalities with fewer than 1,000 residents. While the new “Clayton Heights” would be larger than average, it is still substantially smaller than neighboring University City and only slightly larger than nearby Webster Groves, both very well-managed cities.
The arguments against the merger shared by residents who have attended the public meetings should be familiar to anyone from Saint Louis. As a lifelong St. Louisan, I recognize them as having that typical Saint Louis, reflexive opposition to change which caused Saint Louis City voters to reject the recent charter changes and Saint Charles voters to reject MetroLink. “Why not leave things alone? Changing things would upset the balance,” said one opponent at a recent public meeting. Change will come, whether that person wants it or not, as both city managers have stated that their cities can not maintain current service levels beyond the short term without service cuts or tax increases. Opponents continually throw out the issue of combining the schools, despite knowing full well that the school districts are completely separate political entities that the cities have absolutely no control over.
While it is too early for exact tax rates to be known for the combined city, supporters of the merger on the JSC from both cities should guarantee that overall taxes will go down for everyone as a result of the merger. That promise should be made clear in the voting language and be required by the enabling ordinances as a condition of the merger. A good start would be guaranteeing the adoption of Richmond Heights’ lower property tax rates for the combined city, if not even lower rates, and the elimination of the annual vehicle fee that Richmond Heights’ residents pay but Clayton residents do not. In the interest of the residents of the newly merged city, the only higher tax that should be kept is Richmond Heights’ sales tax rate of 7.575 percent as compared to Clayton’s rate of 7.325 percent. With so many residents from outside the two cities shopping at the Galleria, it makes sense to keep that rate as it is and use the significant revenues to keep the property taxes and other fees as low as possible for both residents and businesses.
The voters of Clayton and Richmond Heights deserve the opportunity to decide on this issue. Not only does the merger make sense for them in both the short term and long run, but passage would set an excellent example for the 89 other municipalities in Saint Louis County that voters will support farsighted thinking and much-needed changes in our local governments.
David Stokes is a writer living in University City.