Several prominent business leaders on Thursday joined in Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome’s campaign to persuade voters in southeast East Baton Rouge Parish to reject a proposal to create a City of St. George while later Thursday night two LSU professors questioned whether St. George is a viable option.

At the press conference, the leaders, a few of whom are associated with businesses within the proposed city, focused on how a fifth city in the parish would severely impact the parish’s school system should the incorporation ultimately lead to an independent school system.

“Baton Rouge’s consolidated government is very cost effective. And to think that you can … set up a whole new system of government and do that cost effectively without raising taxes, that’s just not realistic to me,” said John Engquist, executive chairman of H&E Equipment, which is located within the proposed St. George boundaries. “I don’t think the numbers work and I’ve got huge concerns about what it will do to our education system.”


Can't see video below? Click here.

Later on Thursday, the Greater Baton Rouge Civic Association held a forum on St. George featuring the findings of two LSU professors challenging the budget figures for the proposed city.

LSU economist Jim Richardson and the university’s Public Administration Institute director, Jared Llorens, reviewed highlights from a study they released in 2018 challenging St. George proponents’ budget draft for the proposed city. That study was commissioned by One Baton Rouge, which came out in opposition to St. George.

Richardson and Llorens maintained St. George organizers’ estimated $24 million surplus for the proposed city of 86,000 is inaccurate because the city would be spending more money than it would receive from its portion of a current parishwide 2% sales tax.

Their findings assert the proposed city could expect $48 million annual in sales tax revenue and would likely spend $51 million a year.

They used a ratio of 22.2% in comparison with the city-parish budget to determine how much St. George would need to spend in certain categories. They used that figure because the St. George population would represent 22.2% of the parish's population, excluding Baker, Central and Zachary.

St. George organizers used the figure 19.2% to compare spending with the city-parish budget. Their commissioned financial experts used 19.2% to represent St. George as a percentage of the total parish population, including Baker, Central and Zachary.

Richardson and Llorens’ study also compares spending to other cities similar in size to St. George and found, on average, those cities spend approximately $58.4 million annually. And those the same geographic size as St. George, on average, spend upwards of $90 million annually.

“When you’re talking about building a city, this isn’t an exact science,” Llorens said. “You talk in ranges (and) with any shortfalls the only way to address that is to either cut services or increase taxes.”

The draft budget for St. George indicates the proposed city would spend $34 million a year, benefiting from public-private partnerships that would significantly cut the costs of municipal services.

But Llorens said municipal spending is far too complex to assume there would be definitive cost savings through outsourcing.

Drew Murrell, an attorney and spokesman for the St. George campaign, called Thursday’s earlier press conference an attempt by the city-parish’s rich elite to maintain their status quo.

“You’re telling me Baton Rouge’s rich elite want to keep staying Baton Rouge’s rich elite?” he said. “You wouldn’t see rich elitists standing behind a podium if we have a press conference next week. St. George is just middle-class families who want to stay in East Baton Rouge and enjoy a better form of government.”

Which group will likely tilt the St. George vote? It's all about undecided voters

Broome let business leaders flanking her on Thursday do most of the talking at the press conference. However, she did note their voices are an important addition to the debates over the incorporation measure.

The business leaders focused more on how the incorporation would adversely impact the parish’s school system; however, the creation of an independent school district in St. George is not a part of the Oct. 12 ballot measure.

State legislators said have said they wouldn’t approve the creation of a breakaway school system without St. George becoming a city first like Central and Zachary. And if it gets past the Legislature, voters statewide and parishwide would then have a say in whether to peel off a new school district from the parish school system.

Representatives from H&E, Lamar Advertising, Community Coffee and ExxonMobil all touted their investments in the East Baton Rouge Parish School System and highlighted some of the school system’s accomplishments, like the reduction of its high school dropout rates.

Sean Usher, president of the digital consulting firm Sparkhound, which is located within the proposed city, said he has never considered Baton Rouge and St. George as separate communities and believes an incorporation would hinder the city-parish’s ability to continue on a trajectory of progress.

“The vote, to me, represents a permanent divide in our community,” Usher said. “Many of us have had frustrations with everything from education to where and how our tax dollars are being spent. When we come together and pull our passions … that’s going to be the best way we can accomplish goals.”

St. George proponents have cited  Baton Rouge’s high crime rates, taxation, the failing school system and the city-parish’s inadequate response to widespread drainage issues as reasons for voters to approve incorporation. They argue a City of St. George would also curb the mass exodus of middle-income families moving to surrounding parishes every year for better government and top-rated school districts.

New estimates released early this week from East Baton Rouge Parish school officials indicate the school system would take a substantial hit, losing $85 million a year in revenue, if St. George creates a school district mirroring the boundaries of the proposed new city.

“At this point I’m advocating for parents to educate themselves on the issues, the topics and the facts,” said H&E CEO Brad Barber. “Education has continued to improve in Baton Rouge and we’re proud (of the improvements) the mayor, the mayor’s team and the school district have made.”

“Let’s not run away. Let’s stay and try to figure this out,” said Donna Saurage, whose family owns Community Coffee Company.

Adam Knapp, president and CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, said during an interview following the press conference that the uncertainty of St. George and its proponents’ inability to answer definitive answers about how they can effectively run government through public-private partnerships for municipal services is troubling the overall business community.

“Uncertainty is never good for a community to have when you’re out having conversations about business investment,” Knapp said. “We have concerns this will drive business tax uncertainty in both communities throughout the parish. And we know it’s going to have an effect on the ability to serve all kids (in the parish) with a quality education.”

The incorporation measure goes to voters in the district on Oct. 12. Early voting kicks off Saturday and ends Oct. 5, excluding Sunday, Sept. 29.

Email Terry Jones at tjones@theadvocate.com