Organizers for the proposed city of St. George took aim Monday at the city-parish's library system, pension costs and schools as they painted a bleak picture of Baton Rouge's future and argued that creating St. George would change the trajectory for its residents.
St. George organizers Chris Rials and Andrew Murrell spoke Monday to the Baton Rouge Press Club about their petition campaign to allow people within the proposed city's boundaries to vote on whether to create a new city in the southeastern part of the parish. They said they have amassed "well over 10,000 signatures" seeking to have the matter placed on the ballot.
In order for the petition to successfully trigger a vote, St. George organizers would need to gather signatures from 25 percent of registered voters in their proposed boundaries. They have estimated they'll need 12,951 signatures.
Rials referenced a 2017 J.P. Morgan report ranking Baton Rouge in the top five cities in the nation for funding gaps in pension costs, retiree healthcare and other unfunded obligations. St. George organizers questioned why pension costs in Baton Rouge have increased over the years.
The East Baton Rouge Parish registrar of voters has sent 29 questions to the state attorney general in anticipation of a petition seeking a vo…
"What are the plans of this administration to manage these ever-rising costs and commitments?" Rials asked. "We don't think a plan exists."
Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome fired back later Monday, saying St. George organizers presented inaccurate data that failed to account for 2015 changes to the city-parish's pension system that are expected to produce "massive savings" moving forward.
"While organizers pontificate on the city-parish's finances, they have avoided discussing the fact that the city-parish maintains the market's highest bond ratings (AA or AAA), signaling a healthy and financially sound governance model," Broome said in a statement.
Rials and Murrell said creating St. George would do away with many of the growing pension costs their residents are forced to pay, such as those for the Baton Rouge Police Department. They also repeated the mantra that "Baton Rouge has never wanted us," as St. George is in the unincorporated part of the parish.
Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome says taxes would have to increase to make the proposed city of St. George viable, as her administration a…
But St. George residents would still have to bear the burden of some pension costs. St. George residents pay parishwide taxes for entities such as the library system, while they also pay dedicated taxes for St. George fire protection. Tax money for both of those entities helps pay for pensions.
The report Rials presented — available on the St. George Facebook page — says "city-parish spending is uncontrolled" because Baton Rouge's budget has grown between 2003 and 2018.
The St. George organizers compared Baton Rouge's operating budget to other cities across the state to point out that Baton Rouge collects more revenue and spends more money, in total.
City-parish officials have argued their consolidated form of government is not comparable to a non-consolidated version. And two of the cities that St. George compared Baton Rouge to, New Orleans and Lafayette, have both had budget problems within the years St. George organizers drew their comparisons.
Former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said in previous interviews that New Orleans was on the verge of bankruptcy when he took office in 2010, while Lafayette Parish officials are eyeing tax elections for their courthouse and jail as they anticipate painful cuts next year to government services.
A month after announcing the return of their campaign to create a new city in the southeastern swath of East Baton Rouge, St. George organizer…
The anti-St. George group Better Together also posted figures on its Facebook page Monday that rebut the per capita spending breakdowns from similarly sized cities in the St. George proposed budget. St. George opponents argue the cities St. George listed — including Gulfport, Mississippi, and Sugarland, Texas — spend far more per capita than St. George organizers claim they do.
Rials hammered library spending in Baton Rouge, saying dedicated taxes going to the library system are revenue pools that might be better spent elsewhere.
"What other city in America spends nearly four times more on libraries than it does on transportation?" he asked. "The city-parish governance model is broken. It needlessly wastes taxpayer funds."
The city-parish responded that voters in St. George precincts approved the most recent library tax in 2015 by a 58 percent margin, a point Broome emphasized in her response. St. George residents would also continue to pay library taxes even if the proposed city comes to fruition. The tax, in place for 10 years, is a dedicated property tax assessed on a parishwide basis.
A projected budget for the proposed city of St. George in the southeastern part of the parish shows that organizers expect revenue of about $5…
St. George would also still rely on the city-parish and parishwide entities to provide a multitude of services to its residents. Those include emergency medical services, alcoholic beverage control, garbage collection, mosquito abatement and animal control.
While St. George organizers expect the proposed city would operate with just a handful of employees, Rials and Murrell said St. George's goal is still to create its own school district. They said the school district could be among the best in the state with Zachary and Central schools. They used Louisiana Department of Education data to show that enrollment at Baton Rouge public schools has declined over the past 10 years.
Asked when they might release a budget for that proposed school system, they said creating a school system is still two to three years down the line.
And while Rials and Murrell repeated that they expect the city of St. George to operate with a surplus, a reporter asked whether they could guarantee they would not need to raise money for the school system. Rials said they expect "we will have more than enough money for our schools."
Putting on his salesman hat, East Baton Rouge Parish School Superintendent Warren Drake on Monday launched an informational campaign Monday at…
"Organizers continue to attack the city-parish by using misinformation rather than outlining how they would adequately finance a new city and create a school district without raising taxes," the mayor-president said. "We have proven that their income forecast estimate is off by $13 million. The proposed city's expense budget only offers poorly-backed estimates."
St. George organizers project the proposed city would operate on $58.4 million annually, most of which would come from sales taxes. While they expect to have a surplus, Broome has said St. George would have to raise taxes to make the city viable.
The Baton Rouge Area Chamber board has voted to formally oppose the incorporation of the proposed city of St. George.
BRAC has also questioned St. George's revenues, as the chamber said $33 million is a reasonable estimate for annual sales tax collections, based on the three-year average for sales tax collections in the city's proposed boundaries.
St. George organizers, however, are estimating $53 million in sales tax revenue annually.
Editor's note: This story was updated on Tuesday, June 12, 2018, after the report that Rials presented was deleted from the Vimeo website for Performance Contractors, Inc. and made available instead on the St. George Facebook page.