If St. George successfully incorporates, it will be not only Louisiana’s fifth most populous municipality but also the largest city in the state without its own city police department.
Every parish in Louisiana has a sheriff with parishwide jurisdiction; and almost every city — and certainly all of the largest cities — have the additional protection of a police department. State law even requires municipalities to have a police chief, although some towns have secured legislative exemptions.
But St. George leaders say there’s no need to pour millions of dollars into creating a police department from scratch when residents already are being well served by the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office.
“The entire idea and whole concept of the city is to be a modern city that’s more responsive to taxpayers and more responsive to the needs of its citizens,” said Lionel Rainey, St. George spokesman. “Why in the world would you go and spend $30 (million) to $40 million to construct an entirely new police department when you have law enforcement serving this area right now?”
But some police and government leaders in similar cities say the extra cost is worth the additional protection, saying a local department can be more responsive to the kind of “quality of life” complaints — such as speeding traffic in a neighborhood or other nuisances — that make up a large portion of police work. Once a new municipality is created, there could be political pressures from residents to create that extra level of law enforcement.
The city of St. George’s one-page proposed budget includes $3.1 million for police protection. Rainey said $3 million would go toward a contract for enhanced coverage with the Sheriff’s Office, and the rest of the money would go toward hiring the statutorily required police chief and potentially an assistant police chief, who could assist the Sheriff’s Office as needed.
“The sheriff is already serving the exact same people that would be in St. George,” Rainey said. “The city is already there; it just doesn’t have a name yet.”
The Sheriff’s Office already has two substations located within the boundaries of St. George. The sheriff’s budget mostly comes from a property tax millage paid by all property owners in the parish.
But the $3 million contract was not negotiated with any sheriff staff, Rainey said. He said it’s a number they’ve proposed based on conversations with law enforcement consultants and advisers.
East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux said the Sheriff’s Office’s “primary responsibility is to the unincorporated areas, because we’re their only means of law enforcement.” But he said he’s amenable to contracting with the proposed city of St. George and felt $3 million was “in the ballpark.”
The proposed city of St. George covers about 75 square miles in the southern part of the parish. Organizers have turned in a petition of about 18,000 signatures to put the question to residents in that area if they want to create a new city. If the petition is validated, St. George voters could vote on the measure in a March special election.
While residents who live in unincorporated parts of any Louisiana parish traditionally are served by the sheriff’s offices of their respective parishes, few cities have forgone traditional police department protection.
The counterpoint also comes from East Baton Rouge, where the young city of Central, which is blazing many trails for St. George leaders, also opted to lean on the Sheriff’s Office. Central, a more rural area with a population of about 30,000 residents, has a police chief who oversees a reserve, or volunteer, force of about 10 officers.
Central, which became a city in 2005, has a small police budget of about $250,000 and provides the Sheriff’s Office with $100,000 for additional patrols.
But David Barrow, chief administrative officer for the city, said Central’s government is feeling increased demands from residents to up the level of police presence. This is occurring despite the fact that Central has a low crime rate and is well-protected by the Sheriff’s Office, he said.
Recently, the Central City Council approved an assistant police chief position. And the chief has begun expanding the modest department’s role into traffic enforcement in response to demand from residents.
“People want traffic laws enforced in their neighborhoods. They want patrols,” Barrow said.
Central’s total annual budget is about $5 million, meaning a true police department would be cost-prohibitive at this time.
The city of Sandy Springs, Georgia, has been another model city for St. George organizers. The city, located north of Atlanta, has a population of about 94,000 people — not too dissimilar from St. George, which would have a population of about 107,000.
The territory that became Sandy Springs was previously protected by the Fulton County Police Department, but after the new city incorporated in 2005, it created the Sandy Springs Police Department with 86 officers. Currently, Sandy Springs is served by about 130 officers. The police budget totals about $19 million, which is about 20 percent of the city’s $90 million budget.
“Public safety was a key adopted priority, and we wanted to ensure the highest-quality public safety efforts for our city,” city spokeswoman Sharon Kraun said. “They wanted to be able to have the flexibility to implement things close to home.”
Fulton County is the largest county in Georgia with a population of more than 900,000 people. Kraun said having its own police department has allowed the city to name its own public safety priorities. She said overall crime has decreased over the past nine years.
Back in East Baton Rouge Parish, both Zachary and Baker, cities with populations smaller and budgets larger than Central’s, have true police departments with about 40 officers each.
The chiefs of those police departments say the benefit is having more control, faster response times and stronger community connections. There’s also less competition for resources in areas that need coverage with a city police department, compared to a sheriff who has to provide for the entire parish.
“It gives you more ability to patrol your city and know your people,” said Baker Police Chief Mike Knaps, adding that the department’s average response time for a nonemergency call is about 31/2 minutes.
Knaps said Gautreaux has ensured Baker is well-served by deputies, but he noted that another sheriff could one day deem the area less of a priority.
“How do we know that when he retires, how the next sheriff will feel about us and how much coverage we’ll get?” Knaps asked.
The municipal police departments also can write traffic tickets that are processed by their respective city courts, which generates revenue. Central’s traffic tickets, in comparison, are processed in the 19th Judicial District, so the city receives no money.
On the flip side, public safety is one of the most expensive components of any city budget.
Baker Mayor Harold Rideau said residents are satisfied with the Police Department’s response times. But he noted that the city spends a fortune on benefits and retirement for its police officers.
“There are advantages and disadvantages,” Rideau said. “The disadvantage is cost. The retirement is ridiculous.”
A few cities in Louisiana have bucked the trend and shed their police departments in exchange for contracts with sheriff’s offices. In 1985, the city of Donaldsonville changed its charter to eliminate the police department and contract with the Sheriff’s Office. New Iberia also dissolved its department in 2004 for a contract with the Sheriff’s Office.
The Legislature in the spring authorized the town of Sorrento, home to about 1,500 people, to put a measure on the ballot to scrap the Police Department and instead contract with the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office for about $350,000 for the first year. Sorrento voters on Tuesday will decide the department’s fate.
But Sorrento’s possible change is not motivated by a desire to save money, backers say, as much as it is a necessity after the department lost liability insurance a year ago and has been unable to find a willing insurance provider for a department with a history of lawsuit payouts and officer misconduct.
Residents Against the Breakaway, a St. George opposition group, cast doubts on whether the proposed budget figures for both law enforcement and the proposed city were realistic.
“Until the St. George advocates have a contractual agreement with the sheriff, they frankly have no idea how much police protection for the area would cost,” said M.E. Cormier, a group spokesperson. “What they have presented as a municipal budget is not credible. Like a lot in their budget, the allocation for law enforcement looks like it was scratched out on the back of somebody’s napkin.”