St George mailers.jpg

St George Mailers

A prominent Baton Rouge businessman and a conservative political action group have come out against an effort to incorporate a new city in southeast East Baton Rouge Parish — doing so in flyers filling mailboxes in the region that could become St. George. 

The material, mailed by businessman Richard Lipsey's group Put Louisiana First and by another group called Louisiana First Republicans, claim that, if voters next month agree to create a new municipality, residents within its borders would face higher taxes and, if a separate school district is later created, children from the area attending the parish school district's high-performing magnet schools would be displaced from those schools. 

Lipsey's group also asserts St. George proponents haven't set aside enough money to provide police protection to the proposed city of approximately 86,000 people. 

The postal barrage is hitting residents' mailboxes in the weeks before the Oct. 12 election, which features not only the St. George incorporation vote but also races for statewide, parish and local offices. Early voting is Sept. 28-Oct. 5.

The claims in the mailers have elicited strong reaction from St. George proponents, who dub them "absurd" and "fraudulent."

A group called Our Promising Future sent out mailers in support of the incorporation effort to create a fifth city in the parish. Those flyers promise a better government and more local control of tax dollars in the proposed city.

Backers of both sides say their opponents have not properly registered with the Louisiana Ethics Administration, which handles campaign finance matters. Kathleen Allen, ethics administrator for the state's Board of Ethics, said Tuesday there are no political action committees, or PACs, registered under Our Promising Future, Louisiana First Republicans, or Put Louisiana First. 

Lipsey, a former member of the Louisiana Board of Regents who said he is a financial backer for Put Louisiana First, characterized the group as a "non-political public interest organization" that doesn't engage in expressed advocacy either for or against candidates or ballot propositions, thereby exempting it from the state's campaign finance disclosure laws. 

The mailers from Our Promising Future and Louisiana First Republicans both urge voters to decide — pro by Our Promising Future and against by Louisiana First Republicans — on the St. George incorporation.

The Advocate could not confirm yet who the financial backers and/or leaders are for Louisiana First Republicans, which also doesn't have any business filings listed with the Louisiana Secretary of State Office.

Our Promising Future is listed as an active limited liability company, according to filings with the Secretary of State Office. A person by the name of J.H. Grace is listed as the registering agent for the business. A call to the address listed on the filing was not immediately returned Wednesday.        

PACs are defined in the state's Campaign Finance Disclosure Act as "two or more persons … and any corporation organized for the primary purpose of supporting or opposing one or more candidates, political parties, propositions or recall efforts" that spend more than $500 within a calendar year.

"They only have to register with us if their primary purpose of existence is to support or oppose a candidate, political party, proposition or recall effort," Allen said.  

And any PAC that receives or spends more than $200 related to campaigning must file campaign disclosure reports. 

Campaign disclosure reports related to the St. George ballot proposition and other races are due Thursday.

Allen said it would take someone filing a complaint against one of the groups to activate an investigation by the Ethics Board into possible misconduct. 

"We do not disclose whether or not complaints have been filed," she added.

As for the recent mailers in opposition of St. George, Lipsey's group and Louisiana First Republicans say St. George residents would have to pay new taxes to support costs associated with running the proposed city, pay city leaders and build a new city hall. 

The mailer from Lipsey's group also claims a City of St. George would not have enough money to provide police protection, which the group asserts would be between $25 million and $35 million annually. 

If incorporated, St. George would be required to have a police chief. Proponents have said they intend to broker an agreement with the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office to provide police protection — or what the city of Central has been doing since it incorporated 15 years ago. 

The Sheriff's Office already provides police patrol for the unincorporated areas of the parish.   

Residents and businesses within the proposed St. George boundaries currently pay three parishwide property taxes that annually generate about $65 million for the Sheriff's Office. They'll still have to pay that if the incorporation happens. 

Organizers have also potentially earmarked another $4 million, from the more than $50 million they have projected in sales tax revenue, for additional substations and police protection in the area.  

"Things won’t be as easy at it seems; people in St. George need to know what they're facing," Lipsey said. "It's quite evident St. George backed out of a debate recently because they didn't want to face the questions we have brought to light."

Lipsey has multiple businesses within the proposed boundaries of St. George; he lives on the outskirts.

Representatives from other St. George opposition groups agree with Lipsey, although they said they aren't affiliated with his group. 

"We are happy to have support from any and everyone who understands facts and knows that St. George is a horrible, terrible, very bad idea," said M.E. Cormier, a spokeswoman for Better Together/Residents Against the Breakaway. 

Despite "Breakaway" being in the group's name, St. George wouldn't break away from anything. Voters will consider only whether to create a new city in an unincorporated part of the parish. St. George residents would continue to be East Baton Rouge Parish residents.

Michael Beychock, with One Baton Rouge, said the arguments concerning police protection in the proposed city are questions St. George organizers don't want to answer because no municipality could provide police protection for a city that size at the cost St. George thinks it can do it. 

Cormier argues that once St. George incorporates, the police chief can't be just a "liaison" to the sheriff, as organizers have previously said. State law requires that the chief be truly in charge of law enforcement.

"The rules change when you go from unincorporated to an incorporated municipality, and the Lawrason Act clearly says the city must be led by the police chief, not the sheriff," she said. "He cannot be the liaison. He cannot be second in command." 

East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux released a statement this week doubling down on previous statements he made that he already has deputies and manpower dedicated to servicing the area of the proposed city. 

"If the residents voted to incorporated the area as a city, then I would continue to provide those same services," Gautreaux's statement reads. "If the residents wanted additional law enforcement services, then we would do this as an extra-duty assignment as we currently do with the city of Central. I’m a public servant first and foremost and I’m here to serve the community in any way I can."

Drew Murrell, an attorney and spokesman for the St. George campaign, called the oppositions' arguments regarding police protection "absurd" because basic police services are already covered.

"We have dedicated millages that go to the Sheriff's Office that we've been paying for a very long time," he said. "They keep harping on this $4 million like that's all the money we have for police protection. That money is for additional services."

Murrell added that the notion residents in the proposed city would pay higher taxes is also not true, claiming the 2% sales tax they've built their budget around would more than cover day-to-day expenses and generate an annual surplus.

He also noted the incorporation itself, before setting up a school district, wouldn't displace any students. Although creating a separate school district would first require incorporation, a city could incorporate without ever forming a separate school district. The proposition on the Oct. 12 ballot addresses only incorporation. Creating a separate school district would require legislative approval as well as statewide and local voter approval.

"They want to muddy the water by mentioning the school system," Murrell said. 

St. George's proposed budget indicates the city would spend $34 million a year and have a surplus of $24 million, based on annual tax revenue of $58 million.

Those figures were disputed by two LSU professors who said in July the organizers overestimated revenues and underestimated expenses, which would result in a deficit for the proposed city. They claimed St. George would receive only $45.8 million a year in tax revenue and spend about $51 million annually for the daily operations of the new city.

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