Those backing the creation of a new city in the southeastern corner of East Baton Rouge say St. George wouldn't be anything terribly new — they've patterned their proposed community on cities near and far and say they will be able to run a municipality cheaply and efficiently.
Their opponents argue it can't be done the way St. George's backers imagine. They say residents of a new city will be disappointed with the results — particularly if taxes go up — and that the entire city-parish would benefit if voters reject the new city Oct. 12.
Early voting opens Saturday.
St. George supporters want to privatize certain municipal services, like Sandy Springs, Georgia, did when it incorporated as an Atlanta suburb more than a decade ago, and when Central did in northeastern East Baton Rouge Parish about the same time. Sandy Springs has since brought many services back in-house.
When supporters of the proposed city of St. George sought a model for their government, they looked to Sandy Springs, Georgia, a suburb north …
The new community's opponents say that the 86,000-member community will have to raise taxes to be successful, especially when it pursues the creation of a new school district — the initial impetus for the St. George effort but not a subject of next month's vote.
"We're going to have ample funding for a school system and we've already seen with Central that you can operate on the revenues from just a 2% sales tax and thrive with an annual surplus," said Drew Murrell, an attorney and spokesman for the St. George campaign. "That's exactly what we intend to do in the city of St. George."
And city-parish officials, along with opposition groups, are challenging voters in the area to be informed on the issues surrounding the controversial incorporation measure.
"The creation of a new city will have a permanent impact on the citizens who currently don’t pay city taxes," said Mark Armstrong, spokesman for Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome. "Bottom line, you don’t get more out of less; you only get divided resources. We believe the plan for the proposed city is uncertain, unrealistic and unverifiable."
Below are issues worth another look as early voting begins:
St. George organizers released a budget in 2018 spotlighting the 2% sales already in place throughout the parish as the primary revenue source for the proposed city.
Organizers used the city-parish's 2016 fiscal year budget and financial reports and multiplied those numbers by 19.2%, the population percentage for St. George, to calculate their revenue and Year One spending projections.
Despite complaints of being overtaxed by the city-parish, St. George's incorporation won't lower taxes for its residents. They'll still pay the same property taxes, revenue from which won't go to the proposed city.
Their proposed budget shows $58 million in total revenue — $53 million from the 2% sales tax and another $5 million in total revenue from other various occupational, licensing and business taxes and fees.
How St. George leaders intend to use it isn't set in stone. The proposed budget lists approximately $33 million in spending for various services and salaries for the few municipal employees the city would have.
Proponents have said they'll privatize many municipal services like the city of Central did. They've also indicated they intend to keep certain ones under the city-parish's umbrella. And city-parish officials have already said they won't enter into any agreements with St. George that don't financially make sense within the city-parish’s budget, despite having done so for Central when it incorporated 15 years ago.
Several prominent business leaders on Thursday joined in Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome’s campaign to persuade voters in southeast East …
To see how St. George proposes to police the new city, look to Central.
State law only requires a municipality have a chief of police when it comes to police protection, and that person must serve as the general law enforcement arm for St. George, enforcing all ordinances and serving as the top administrator of how money is spent on policing measures.
East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux has said that although no one from the St. George camp has approached him, he's willing to broker an agreement with leaders in the proposed city if they opted to use his deputies for police protection like Central has been doing since it incorporated.
The Sheriff's Office already provides police protection in the unincorporated area.
Like everyone else in the parish, St. George residents pay the three parishwide property taxes that make up a good chunk of the Gautreaux's annual budget. Proponents also earmarked an additional $4 million in their proposed budget for "additional substations and/or police protection."
The opposition has passionately challenged proponents' plans regarding police protection, arguing St. George's police chief can't act as a sort of liaison to Sheriff's Office since state law required he actually be in charge of law enforcement. They've also asserted the cost to police a city of St. George's size would take upwards of $35 million annually, which would mean the rest of the city-parish's taxpayers would be supplementing the police protection in St. George.
Experts have said law enforcement is one aspect of the incorporation effort that would likely be challenged in court.
The movement to create the city of St. George was rooted in the proponents' desire to create a breakaway school system, but they were told by state legislators that wouldn't happen unless they became a city first.
Despite that goal, the measure on the Oct. 12 ballot is only for incorporation. Proponents have said it'll probably be another two to three years before they pursue a separate school district. Doing so presents its own set of challenges a little more complicated than creating a new city.
Breaking away from the East Baton Rouge Parish school system requires statewide and parishwide elections to amend Louisiana's Constitution so that St. George can receive education funding from the state. Approval from the state Legislature for the defined boundaries of that school system is also required, which is subject to veto by the governor.
The fight over the finances of a proposed City of St. George has been fierce, with proponents saying it will have ample money while opponents …
OTHER THINGS TO CONSIDER
St. George organizers have already said they don't plan to extend the city-parish's bus service into the proposed city. And officials with the Capital Area Transit System have said the new city won't adversely impact their bus service.
Monthly bills for basic utilities like water, sewer and electricity should remain the same as well. However, the costs for trash service won't be known until St. George leaders meet with the city-parish to hash out whether the new city will attempt to piggyback on the city-parish's contract for residential trash service. But the city-parish is under no obligation to let them do that.
The city-parish's retirement board is also trying to amend the parish's retirement ordinance to ensure the retirement system continues to have enough money to pay retirement benefits should the new city incorporate.
By the board's calculations, St. George would have to pay the city-parish somewhere between $5.3 million and $7.5 million annually in unfunded accrued liability to the retirement system over a 15-year period.
St. George's proposed budget includes an approximately $4 million annual appropriation for legacy and retirement costs to the city-parish. If it ends up being more, proponents have said they'll have enough in surplus funds to cover it.