Members of the Federation of Greater Baton Rouge Civic Associations on Thursday night grilled the organizers behind the proposed city of St. George effort on claims the incorporation would mean a better government, improved services and an improved school district for residents in the southeastern East Baton Rouge area.
And their responses to the non-profit group of homeowner associations sparked some outbursts from members who felt the proponents weren't being forthright in their presentation regarding why they want to form what could become the fifth municipality in the parish.
"Last month we sent out a survey and the results told us the thing people were most concerned about with St. George was financial information and not understanding the numbers," Nancy Curry, president of the civic group, said at the start of the meeting. "We’re hoping tonight you will learn something more in depth about what the proponents' budgets cover and what the numbers mean."
Nearly half of the homeowner associations within the organization are from neighborhoods inside the proposed city, which would have a population of some 86,000.
The proposed incorporation, on the Oct. 12 ballot, has been a contentious issue ever since it was first broached a few years ago. Early voting is Sept. 28 through Oct. 5, excluding Sept. 29, a Sunday.
Thursday's night meeting was originally scheduled as a forum to be broadcast on WBRZ-TV and to feature representatives from those in opposition as well as those in favor of the incorporation effort.
But St. George proponents had backed out because Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome wouldn't accept their challenge to debate the incorporation initiative on live TV.
Broome's team, in response, lambasted proponents, claiming they were using the mayor-president as a scapegoat to avoid having a real discussion about the higher taxes and budget deficits that would result from creating the new city.
The proponents did show up Thursday to make a solo address to the association. Members from opposition were in the audience.
LSU professors James Richardson and Jared Llorens in a report commissioned by an opposition group asserted St. George organizers were overestimating their revenues and underestimating expenses. Both men are scheduled to speak about the incorporation at the association's Sept. 26 meeting.
Drew Murrell and Chris Rials, two of the proponents pushing the St. George measure, told the association they want to incorporate a new city because of the high crime rates in Baton Rouge, over-taxation, and the city-parish's inadequate response to widespread drainage issues.
They also noted the exodus of middle-income families moving to surrounding parishes with better school districts.
Creating a new school district is at the heart of the St. George incorporation effort, but that is not addressed in the current ballot measure. Creating a separate school district would require legislative approval as well as statewide and local voter approval.
Murrell and Rials referenced the city of Central, the last city in East Baton Rouge to incorporate, and how St. George would mirror many of the public-private partnerships regarding municipal services that had led Central, a city with about 20,000 residents, to annual budget surpluses.
"Central budget is telling of what St. George could be," Murrell said. "We’ve managed a status quo in Baton Rouge for too long. It’s time for us to change … and do something differently."
But proponents were accused of inflating the amount of Central's annual surplus, which one association member claimed was more like $600,000 a year instead of the more than $1 million proponents claimed. Members also confronted proponents about carving out neighborhoods and areas with large populations of black residents.
The undertones of race about the issue flared when Donald Hodge, an opposing voice about the issue, got into a back-and forth with Rials when he tried to press proponents about their budget projections.
"He referred to us as a white supremacist group," Murrell said during the meeting.
To which Hodge replied, "You drew out the black residents!"
The St. George proponents redrew the proposed boundaries after the first failed effort two years ago to get the proposal on the ballot.
Rials tried to dispel the notion regarding race by telling the audience that St. George, if incorporated, would have a majority-minority school district since the kids who already attend schools in the proposed area would not be displaced.
But Rials also admitted the current situation is like that because many white families in the proposed city currently send their kids to private schools.