In a proposal that sparked immediate controversy, a state Senate leader and others have filed a bill that would divide the parks and recreation system for East Baton Rouge Parish and set up new recreation districts in St. George, Zachary and Central.

The measure, Senate Bill 205, is sponsored primarily by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bodi White, R-Central.

It would revamp BREC by creating three new, independent districts, each with its own governing board and superintendent.

BREC has 1,000 employees, an annual budget of about $95 million and oversees 182 parks and a wide range of other attractions.

It is financed largely with parish property tax revenue that generates $65 million per year and user fees that total $10 million annually, along with other revenues.

BREC is managed by a nine-member commission, including six members named by the Metro Council.

In an interview, White said Tuesday he launched a similar effort more than a decade ago but shelved it after getting assurances from BREC leaders, including commission member Collis Temple Jr., that Central would see improvements.

"They have done some things but it has been 12 years," he said. "They haven't done what they said they were going to do."

"It's time for a change and everyone knows it," White said in a statement issued later in the day. "Each city in this parish can manage their parks more effectively and efficiently than having one huge system trying to do it all. It's just common sense."

White said Zachary has the best park system in the parish and its residents still pay property taxes to support BREC.

"I think if Central had their own parks they would be very nice like their schools and make a first class for recreation, for all the people out there and all kinds of amenities and opportunities," he said.

White said residents of the new districts would pay the same as they do now to support BREC.

The lawmaker holds wide power as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which plays a major role in shaping Louisiana's annual operating and other budgets.

BREC Superintendent Corey K. Wilson issued a statement in which he denounced White's proposal.

Wilson said the bill would "add three more layers of government" to operate parks in East Baton Rouge Parish.

"Parks should not be used as a political football," he said. "This proposal screams of government inefficiency and duplication when now more than ever it is vital that tax dollars are used to their highest and most optimal benefit by agencies like BREC with a track record of delivering on this mandate."

In an interview, Wilson said he has talked to White about the issue since shortly after becoming superintendent in 2019, met with the senator about two weeks ago and heard "rumblings that he was not really happy with how things were operating."

The 2021 regular legislative session begins April 12.

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In a statement, Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, a former state lawmaker herself, questioned the need for changing BREC.

"I hope to speak with Senator White to better understand the motivations of his legislation," Broome said. "With that said, BREC is a well renowned park system and I believe all of our citizens are best served under a united organization."

Broome narrowly defeated White in her first bid for mayor in 2016.

The proposal is already sparking arguments among Baton Rouge area lawmakers.

Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, said Tuesday she plans to oppose the measure.

"I am not happy with that at all," Marcelle said.

She questioned the wisdom of overhauling the current setup, which she said would simply create more layers of government.

BREC was created 75 years ago, and officials said it is one of just four systems in the nation to receive national accreditation six times.

The agency said multiple "transformative" projects are in the works, including improvements to the Baton Rouge Zoo and Greenwood Community Park, a plan to erect 450 miles of trails across the parish and the development of measures to reduce flood risks to neighborhoods and businesses around BREC parks.

In 2019 voters opted to incorporate the boundaries of St. George in the southeast part of the parish.

Opponents have filed a lawsuit aimed at nullifying the effort.

The timetable for the parks changes would be different for St. George than for Central and Zachary, and would take effect 180 days after the resolution of the lawsuit.

Aside from White the bill is also sponsored by Sens. Heather Cloud, R-Turkey Creek and vice-chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee; Cameron Henry, R-Metairie; Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge and Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport.

White is no stranger to efforts to revamp parish operations.

He sponsored the legislation that paved the way for the Central School District, which is one of the top rated in the state.

White twice fell short in his push to carve out a new school district in southeast Baton Rouge.

That failure played a big role in the wider push to create the city of St. George.

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.