The proposed city of St. George’s annual budget of about $80.8 million has taken an estimated hit of 20 percent because of properties being annexed into Baton Rouge in recent months. But Norman Browning, who is spearheading the incorporation effort, said the new municipality can still operate with a small surplus despite the loss of property.
Browning answered questions about the city effort, its financial future and its battle with officials in the city of Baton Rouge on Tuesday at a luncheon hosted by the East Baton Rouge Parish Republican Party.
The loss of the Mall of Louisiana and the L’auberge Casino and Hotel could deprive the city of St. George — should it come to pass — of about $16 million in anticipated sales and gaming tax revenue.
Browning said St. George organizers anticipated that Baton Rouge officials would annex these major revenue generating properties, which have been a matter of contention since petition drive began for the new city.
“The way I look at it is, in the beginning one of the biggest pushbacks was there wasn’t going to be any money, we’re going to bankrupt them,” Browning said. “I assume that’s not an issue anymore. They can’t complain about money anymore.”
The first draft of St. George’s one-page budget included a $20 million surplus. Browning said at some point annexations could negatively impact the proposed operating budget, but he also said that when Baton Rouge shrinks St. George’s footprint, it could have the parallel effect of shrinking the new city’s operating costs.
Baton Rouge attorney Mary Olive Pierson, who is volunteering to represent Baton Rouge officials in some annexation issues, previously said the city of Baton Rouge had its sights set on the Siegen Marketplace as another potential annexation. Baton Rouge has successfully cut more than 5 square miles out of the St. George proposed boundaries via annexations.
“I’m quite sure that Baton Rouge is trying to create the perception that everyone wants to be in Baton Rouge,” Browning said. “My only response to that is that they’ve had five petitions to be in Baton Rouge, and we have 18,000 signatures of people who want to be in St. George.”
Pierson and other opponents of St. George’s incorporation have characterized the potential new city as economically unstable, sending businesses to Baton Rouge because of the concern that property owners in a new city could be subject to unknown school and municipal taxes.
Browning admitted that “you can never say with certainty” that taxes won’t go up, but he noted that there are no guarantees Baton Rouge wouldn’t increase taxes either. But, he said, budget projections for both the city and the school system suggest there would be enough money to operate a lean government and build schools.
He said Baton Rouge’s government is bloated and wasteful, pointing to a 2013 article in the Washington Examiner that put Baton Rouge as one of the highest in the country for its ratio of city employees to residents.
“We’ll have a mayor, we have to have a chief of police, we’ll give the mayor an assistant,” Browning said, describing St. George’s proposed lean government staffing. “We will not have one employee for every 28 citizens.”
The article actually pins Baton Rouge for 30 residents to every one employee. However, William Daniel, chief administrative officer for Mayor-President Kip Holden, said the article is flawed because it has a grossly inaccurate employee count and uses the city of Baton Rouge’s population, instead of the parish population. The article states that Baton Rouge has 7,566 employees, but Daniel said the city-parish government employs about 4,400 people.
“I know the people who are putting this report out on behalf of St. George recognize it’s a flawed report,” Daniel said. “It’s just another example of the spread of misinformation.”
Browning passionately defended the supporters of the new city effort and their earnest desire to create a better school system for their children. Browning and others began working to create a new city, via a petition process and a referendum, after the state Legislature twice killed their efforts to fund a breakaway school system in the southeast part of the parish. St. George organizers say they have more than enough signatures on their petition but will collect more to cover their bases before submitting it to be validated and set for a vote.
Browning admonished Baton Rouge officials who are fighting their grassroots effort and who have been open about their intentions to file suits to disrupt a vote.
“They’re trying to circumvent the democratic process and take away the right to vote,” he said.
Pierson said Baton Rouge has rights under the law to sue because St. George organizers aren’t correctly following the process to incorporate. She said under the law, St. George organizers need to provide a reasonable and detailed plan to illustrate their plans for government.
“Are they going to have a council or a police jury? How many people are going to be on that governmental body? How many people will work in city hall?” Pierson said. “They have no plan at all except in the back of their minds.”
She said Baton Rouge will not simply be satisfied with annexing the major revenue generators back into the city limits because it has invested millions of dollars on infrastructure and economic development in those areas over the past several decades.
“If they want them and they get them, we want to be paid for them,” Pierson said. “This is not just about the mall and this is not just about the casino.”
St. George supporters argue that it’s largely their taxes that have contributed to those investments.
Baton Rouge also has annexed Celtic Studios, Costco, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center and a handful of vacant parcels of land in the southwest part of the parish. A vote to annex L’auberge and some of LSU’s research farm land is expected to take place in the coming weeks.