The leaders of Central know what it’s like to create a new city in East Baton Rouge Parish, and they say they see the people trying to organize a new city of St. George in the southeastern part of the parish going through the same struggles.
They say their own effort to incorporate 15 years ago was just as contentious, but they eventually prevailed and see no reason why St. George proponents won't as well — not that the process was easy and didn’t have an ugly side.
"We were told we were a bunch of racist rednecks,” said Russell Starns, a Central businessman who spearheaded the city's incorporation drive in 2004. “The mayor at the time asked us not to do it because he was worried what it would do to the parish."
It ultimately boils down to what people in a community want for themselves, he said.
"It gets down to somebody’s opinion of what they think,” Starns said. “In most cases, the people that were fighting us had never crossed that railroad track to get here."
Like those in Central, those backing the St. George incorporation effort say the campaign to block it is driven largely by people who don't even live within the proposed new city's boundaries.
The window has closed: People who signed the latest petition to place the St. George proposal on the ballot can no longer remove their names, …
To be sure, Central and St. George are much different communities. Central was more rural and had approximately 25,000 residents when it became its own city. The proposed city of St. George has an assumed population of more than 86,000 people and home to some of the city-parish's major commercial corridors and affluent tax base.
M.E. Cormier, one of the leaders of the Better Together/Residents Against the Breakaway, say that's one reason St. George's incorporation would do more harm parishwide.
"When Central incorporated, they made Baton Rouge revenue-positive," she said. "The difference is a sharp contrast. St. George will have the city-parish revenue-negative to the tune of over $50 million."
Cormier said that would likely to lead to tax increases for everyone else if St. George is allowed to become a city.
The first big hurdle for St. George proponents is getting a proposal on the ballot to create the new city.
They are currently awaiting word from the parish's Registrar of Voters on whether they've amassed the 12,951 signatures required to bring it to voters. The petition needs valid signatures from 25 percent of the registered voters within St. George's proposed city limits. Organizers fell 71 signatures short in their previous attempt in 2015.
The proponents submitted petitions containing what they said were 14,500 signatures in October and those are in the process of being validated as quickly as possible, officials say, although there’s no timetable for completion.
St. George opponents spent Monday frantically scurrying around town picking up withdrawal forms, while proponents of the proposed city were mo…
Representatives for and against creating a new city of St. George debate said they were told the verification process could be completed by the end of the month.
Cormier and her group procured their own copy of the petition and are combing through it.
"Every signature deserves large amount of scrutiny," she said.
Starns, the Central businessman involved in that city’s incorporation, said he believes St. George's first attempt failed because the boundaries were too large. For their second attempt, St. George advocates carved out nearly all the sections in the original plan where they saw the strongest opposition the first time around.
Starns, whom the group consulted with early on during the first attempt, says this approach should work in their favor this time.
Central's incorporation push stumbled in the beginning as well.
Like St. George, it began out of the desire to create a new school district. After being told they wouldn't get the approval it took from the state Legislature to do so, Starns and others turned to a petition drive to become a city and later get the separate school district they wanted.
In their pitch for incorporation in 2004, they crafted their budget around a 2 percent sales tax and various municipal fees. They promised no new city taxes, a promise they’ve kept.
While Central collects no property taxes for city operations, it does have a separate dedicated property tax to support its school system.
St. George organizers have said they'll release their plan for a new school district in the proposed city after they incorporate.
Starns said Central's push to breakaway was also rooted in the community's eagerness to gain more control over how their tax dollars were spent and how their community would develop.
"It gave us major control over things we didn't have control over with the city-parish, like planning and zoning," Starns said.
Before they incorporated, Starns said the city-parish wasn't investing tax dollars into the community the way residents saw fit.
St. George proponents have made similar arguments.
To keep from raising taxes, St. George said it intends to follow the same course as Central and privatize municipal services.
The city of St. George is dead, at least for now.
Central’s current mayor, David Barrow, said there are “a lot more pluses than minuses” to privatization. However, his predecessor, JR Shelton, said the large size of St. George means it won’t be able to contract all its municipal services under one third-party vendor like Central does.
Shelton also warns that not having city employees on hand to handle emergencies like the 2016 floods, which swamped most of the city, can also pose problems.
"You need to have a back-up plan for when emergencies hit," Shelton said.
A large portion of the St. George proposed area was also severely impacted by the widespread flooding in 2016.
"We get the benefit of hindsight with St. George," said Drew Murrell, an attorney and spokesman for the St. George campaign. "I think we have a plan in place for future that involves pulling in emergency responders and resources” when they are needed.
Shelton's suggestion that St. George implement multiple contracts to privatize municipal services has worked well for Sandy Springs, Ga., which broke away to form its own city in north Fulton County, Georgia 14 years ago.
Sandy Springs, which has a population of more than 100,000 people, was thrust in the national spotlight for its successes in the public/privatization set up for municipal services.
St. George modeled much of its proposal after Sandy Springs. According to spokeswoman Sharon Kraun, the city contracted services include finance, its call center, communications, economic and community development, IT, public works and facilities, parks and recreation and municipal court. It's legal services are also handled by an outside law firm.
There are only 14 administrative employees on the city's payroll, excluding fire and police protection and the city's mayor and six-member council.
Sandy Springs' general fund budget is approximately $110.4 million and they've maintained a surplus at or above $20.5 million, according to their most recent fiscal budget.
"Privatization has been very successful," Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said in en emailed statement. "Every time we rebid the contracts, we've lowered the cost of services. Like any process involving humans, it’s not perfect."
"However, it has given us a predictable cost of services over each five-year period and the flexibility to respond to changing situations that make our service delivery strategy very adaptive to evolving needs," Paul said.
Like the cities of Baker, Zachary and Central, St. George would rely on the city-parish for certain services it already provides in the unincorporated area while contracting out other municipal services.
Fire protection will be provided by the St. George Fire Department and the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office will police streets. The proposed city's year-one budget outlines $33 million in expenditures and approximately $58 million in revenues — a significant portion of which will come from sales tax revenues within the boundaries that were estimated at $53 million.
Two LSU professors who analyzed the numbers for the Better Together group say St. George has overestimated revenues and underestimated expenses.