With only weeks to go before early voting begins, opponents of the proposed City of St. George on Wednesday hosted a “community civic academy” aimed at educating voters about the potential implications of a vote for incorporation.
For dozens of attendees, however, the presentation appeared to raise more questions than answers.
The gathering, held at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church and sponsored by One Baton Rouge, began with an eight-minute educational video arguing that the numbers presented by supporters of the proposed city “simply don’t add up.”
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The event drew more than 100 residents from across East Baton Rouge Parish — including Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome — and came just a day before supporters of the proposed city are scheduled to have their own kick-off event at Woodlawn Baptist Church.
“Let me make this very clear: I love everybody in this parish. I don’t care what ZIP code you live in,” Broome said. “I am committed to keeping this parish together, and to keeping this city together.”
Following the video presentation, the attendees, which included both supporters and opponents of the measure, broke off into moderated small groups to discuss why they came to the event and what questions they still had. The groups then shared their discussions with the room.
The resounding consensus appeared to be one of continued confusion and a desire for clarity on issues related to potential tax hikes and school district changes. Some said the video was too complicated and included too many numbers. Others said they wanted a fact sheet so they can easily discuss the issue with their neighbors.
“I think the onus has always been on the proponents of St. George to provide serious answers to serious questions,” said M.E. Cormier, who is heading the opposition effort, adding that the group appreciates the feedback on how to improve their messaging.
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The push for the new city is rooted in the area’s desire for its own school district, something state legislators said they wouldn’t agree to without St. George becoming a municipality. Having its own school district was at the center of the failed petition drive the first time around in 2015; it’s rarely mentioned anymore.
The proposed city boundaries would include unincorporated areas in the parish’s southeastern corner. Only voters living within those lines will be able to cast ballots on Oct. 12 on whether to incorporate as a new city. Still, much of the event focused on the potential ramifications for the entire parish, particularly on the issue of taxation.
Supporters of the new city released a proposed budget last year saying St. George would spend $34 million a year and have a surplus of $24 million, based on annual tax revenues of $58 million that largely draw on the 2 percent sales tax already in place.
Those figures were later disputed by two LSU professors in a report commissioned by One Baton Rouge who said the organizers overestimated revenues and underestimated expenses, which would ultimately result in a deficit. That would require raising taxes, opponents say.
St. George’s backers counter it will be able to provide services more efficiently than the city-parish, allowing the new city’s leaders to seek to lower taxes.
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If voters do approve of creating the new city, St. George will take just under 20 percent of the revenue dedicated to the city-parish’s general fund. That comes out to about $48 million and could result in across-the-board department cuts and tax increases for the rest of the parish. During her brief remarks, Broome said she had directed the city’s agencies to anticipate a potential budget cut.
Still, despite so many numbers swirling around, one sentiment continued to arise among attendees: "We need more facts."
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