When Central incorporated 10 years ago, leaders of the community north of Baton Rouge launched what has become a decadelong experiment in local government, running on a lean budget funded solely by a 2 percent sales tax.
They vowed not to raise the tax, promising to keep costs low by contracting all services out to private firms and limiting the city payroll to three employees.
Ten years later, the promise holds, and Central’s stripped-down approach to government appears to be working. About 3,000 people have moved to the city since it incorporated, with its population now estimated at 28,000.
“We used to know every car at the crossroads,” said Mac Watts, 71, a lifelong resident and the first mayor of Central. “Now, I know every 1 out of 10.”
But the incorporation that took place on July 11, 2005, was never really intended.
“We didn’t start out wanting to be a city,” said Russell Starns, a businessman who led the incorporation effort. “We wanted to get our own school district.”
Residents had asked the state Legislature twice for a school district independent of the East Baton Rouge Parish system but were denied because Central was not a municipality, Starns said. Eventually, a petition to become an independent city began circulating and accumulated about 7,000 signatures, landing the issue on ballots in 2005. About 67 percent of voters approved incorporation.
More recently, in southeast Baton Rouge, a similar desire to improve schools via a breakaway district failed twice in the Legislature and evolved into a petition drive to form the city of St. George. That effort has stalled for now, with the Registrar of Voters Office last month declaring the petition short of the required signatures.
Organizers were confident Central would have enough money to provide city services once the city-parish handed over the authority to collect an existing local 2 percent sales tax, Starns said. Although the Central school system, which wouldn’t be set up until 2007, and its small fire department collect property taxes as independent taxing districts, the city’s funding comes from the sales tax alone.
The school system’s general fund budget is about $40 million. By contrast, the city government has a $6 million budget, roughly half of which pays for a contract with the Institute for Building Technology and Safety, which handles permitting and services like cutting grass.
One year remains on the five-year contract with IBTS, which took over city services in 2011 from the initial contractor, CH2M Hill.
The only paid city employees in Central are the mayor, an administrative officer and an assistant.
“A lot of mayors would love to do that, but they’re unable to do that because they have civil service employees,” Watts said. “We started from scratch.”
One result was an $18 million surplus when Watts left office about a year ago. “That’s pretty good for a new city,” Watts said. The current mayor, Jr. Shelton, said some of that money may be spent soon on local road and drainage improvements.
Many roads in Central are parish and state roads, though — meaning the city doesn’t maintain them but still benefits. One such project is the Central Thruway, a 4-mile stretch that gives the city easier access to I-12 and opened in 2013 as part of the city-parish’s Green Light Plan.
“It will be a blessing to us for a long time to come,” Shelton, 64, who became mayor in July 2014, said. He believes the thruway will bring more retail businesses, which would boost sales tax revenues and the city’s coffers.
The city needs businesses and jobs, Shelton said, but he wants quality developments that will last 30 to 40 years. Central has the basics, like grocery stores and a few restaurants, but needs variety, he said. There is nowhere in town to buy furniture, men’s shoes or appliances, for example.
At the same time, the city follows its master plan, which was finalized in 2010, to the letter. It was designed under Watts to avoid sprawl problems like those in Baton Rouge, Shelton said. Commercial and residential developments are kept separate in clear “nodes,” and no tweaks to those boundaries are allowed for individual developments.
“We won’t bend even if we lose them,” he said. Traffic and noise come with commercial developments, and mixing them into residential areas would threaten the quiet sanctuary Central offers families attracted there by good schools and low crime rates.
Like the city, Central’s young school system — the centerpiece of the incorporation fight — is dealing with growing pains.
The Legislature did not grant the new municipality a school district until 2007. When the East Baton Rouge Parish school system turned over the four schools it had in Central at that time, Starns and others found them outdated and in need of repairs.
“The last school that was built in this area was the one we were calling the new school,” said Starns, who was the first president of the Central school board. “Guess who graduated from it? Me. I’m 57.”
The Central Community School System today has about 4,600 students attending five schools — one high school, one middle school and three elementary schools — compared with about 3,300 in 2007. A ninth-grade academy is opening this school year to alleviate crowding at Central High School, said Michael Faulk, who has been superintendent since the system formed.
First- and second-graders at Tanglewood Elementary are housed in temporary classrooms. Those children represent the fastest-growing segment of the Central system, Faulk said.
The elementary school student to teacher ratio was 20 to 1 in 2007, but Faulk recently had to ask the school board to approve a 24 to 1 ratio. The middle school ratio also is on the rise, Faulk said, with about 30 students in each class.
Crowding is not a major problem yet, but “there’s going to come some point in time, if we don’t add the necessary sections, don’t have the necessary classrooms, it could become an issue,” he said.
Central schools make up the No. 3-ranked system in Louisiana, boasting library, art and music programs at each of its schools. They “most definitely” draw people to Central, Faulk said.
“We’re getting people from outside the state of Louisiana, people moving from parts of Baton Rouge, people moving from Livingston,” he said.
Watts pointed to the school system as what “jump-started” the city’s rapid growth since incorporation.
Shelton said it’s important not to overburden the schools because they remain Central’s biggest asset. They also are one of many areas in which the city is encouraging growth but are trying to carefully manage its effects on the close-knit community.
“When you move to Central, we’re the 12th-largest city in the state, but you know just about everyone in a short time,” he said. “On Sunday morning, Central’s in church. It’s just a hub of activity that you want for families.”