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Jan 2001 / from the source :: email this story to a friend

The Case for Home Rule
By Vince Schoemehl

To grant Home Rule to the City of St. Louis the voters of the entire state will have to vote to change the State Constitution. Vince Schoemehl Home Rule will simply allow the voters of St. Louis to make city government more accountable, efficient and responsive to the reasonable expectations of our citizens and the local business community. Home Rule is important because the structure of a community's government leads directly to its efficiency and effectiveness. And it is this efficiency and effectiveness in local government (or lack thereof) which drives the economic decision of many businesses as to where they should locate their office or plant. Every county in Missouri with a population of 85,000 or more is granted Home Rule under the Missouri Constitution. St. Louis stands alone as the only community meeting this population criteria which does not have the constitutional right to Home Rule.

Ironically, St. Louis was the first city in the nation to be granted Home Rule under the Missouri Constitution of 1875. But the City has been denied Home Rule powers through a series of judicial decisions over the past 125 years. Unlike Florissant or Clayton which are cities located inside St. Louis County, St. Louis City is defined in the State Constitution as a "City not located within a County." It was the clear intent of the framers of the 1875 State Constitution that St. Louis residents would be empowered to adopt and periodically amend its Charter relating to both City and County functions.

The confusion concerning the Home Rule powers of St. Louis began in a 19th century court case in which a judge decided that St. Louis voters could change the municipal (City) functions of its Charter, but the county functions were deemed to be off limits. This interpretation set a precedent that has been repeated in several court cases, the last as recently as 1990 when it was determined that the City could not eliminate the office of License Collector and re-distribute the duties of the office between the Comptroller and the Collector of Revenue. By contrast, City voters have adopted three different charters and dozens of charter amendments over the past 125 years changing municipal functions of the charter.

What is the difference between a "city function" and a "county function"? Unfortunately there isn't a clear and consistent answer. For example, in St. Louis County there is a County Department of Health which would appear to make health care a "county" function. However, in the City here is "City Department of Health and Hospitals" which is part of the City governmental structure. In St. Louis County there are "fire districts" which cover several municipalities which provide fire services for these areas, but in the City of St. Louis the fire department is part of the Department of Public Safety which is a "city" department. To make matters more confusing, in St. Louis County several cities such as University City and Clayton have their own city fire departments.

So, with all this lack of clarity, why is Home Rule so important to St. Louis City? Because St. Louis City is one unit of government and people expect it to act as a unified, efficient organization. That was the purpose of the creation of St. Louis as a City/County form of government 125 years ago and the rationale behind granting it Home Rule in the first place. But we have failed to meet the expectations of our citizens and the business persons who want and deserve the benefits of a unified government structure, at least in part, because judicial interpretation has stripped St. Louis of its Home Rule authority.

The fractured form of government in the City means we consume far too much time of a person wishing to locate a business in the City. Such a business person can expect to deal with between eight and twelve different departments for licenses, permits and tax reporting. Such a cumbersome structure is a dynamic obstacle to business development and in an attempt to offset these deterrents, the City has initiated a series of expensive business development incentives to attract business. While this incentive structure has been only marginally successful, it has progressively shifted the burden of taxation away from new businesses (which we're trying to attract) and onto the existing businesses (which are already in the City) and onto private citizens.

Every former Mayor of the City is a supporter of Home Rule. Yet none of us is so naïve as to believe this alone will alter the City's future. Home Rule is simply a tool; a governance structuring right granted to every other major county in the state. Not having Home Rule is a statement by the State of Missouri to the citizens of St. Louis that says "you're not capable of managing your own affairs." Achieving Home Rule is a first step to achieving "citizen equity" with the rest of the citizens of the state and an opportunity for St. Louis to move itself into the 21st Century. If we fail, at least it will be a self-imposed failure. But without Home Rule we are denied even the opportunity to organize our government so as to compete in this new, exciting economic age. Our City and our citizens deserve that chance. We deserve that respect. And we owe it to ourselves to not fail to respond to the challenges and opportunities Home Rule will provide.

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