Saint George 052219

State Sens Bodi White, R-Central, and Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, prepare their testimony Wednesday, May 22, 2019, on creating a transition framework should St. George voters choose to incorporate a new city.

Voting along racial lines, a Louisiana House committee approved legislation to set up a transition should St. George elect to become its own city.

The House Committee on Municipal, Parochial and Cultural Affairs voted 11-5 to advance Senate Bill 229 despite pleas from East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Broome that last minute amendments attached to the measure not only blew up the agreement both sides had cut but also would leave the remaining Baton Rouge residents holding the tab for bonds, pensions and other costs that St. George residents still owe. If nothing changes, the bill is one-step away from final approval.

“We agreed in committee to make sure that the potential of a newly formed city would pay its fair share of debt incurred by all of the citizens of the parish and not simply be allowed to walk away from their financial obligations,” Broome said. She thought they had a deal but changes slipped onto the legislation during Senate floor debate changed those dynamics.

“That’s why we’re here today,” she added.

Republican Central Sen. Bodi White said the measure agreed to in Senate committee was too general. He felt the legislation should set “some parameters” that would help guide city-parish officials on one side and St. George proponents on the other when they sit down to negotiate. “It’s just a mechanism, it’s not personal,” said White, who ran against Broome for mayor-president in 2017.

“Some people have classified this as a divorce,” said Sen. Dan Claitor, the Baton Rouge Republican whose SB229 details how to transition from unincorporated neighborhoods to a city, if the voters agree. “But this is really more of son or daughter graduating and going out on their own.”

Predominantly white neighborhoods in the southeastern portion of East Baton Rouge Parish, with roughly 80,000 residents, will be voting this fall on whether to incorporate into their own city. The 400,000 or so parish residents living outside what would be St. George will not be allowed to vote.

Should the voters approve a new city, the city-parish government would have to reduce services and expenditures for everyone else or raise taxes and fees to cover the lost revenues, according to a September 2018 analysis by Richard CPAs of Metairie.

Broome has ordered department leaders to prepare two spending plans for the next fiscal year – one with the same amount of revenues as this year and the other with 20% less.

Issues of how to handle loans and a bond that is paying for parish roads maintenance as well as pensions for fire fighters, law enforcement and school teachers who are paid partially by the parish but work in the unincorporated areas is still up in the air. Supporters say those issues would be negotiated.

But what really concerns Broome is the black-and-white wording of the new language added to the legislation that says St. George would be freed of “…debt secured by parish taxes that relates to immovable property not located within the municipality…”

In particular, the parish used sales tax proceeds, including collections from the St. George neighborhoods, to secure a $15 million bond to pay for refurbishing the old Woman’s Hospital on Airline Highway into offices and a command center for local law enforcement, including the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff and the District Attorney. The city-parish still owes about $11.2 million on that loan.

East Baton Rouge collects about $194.5 million in sales taxes, which accounts for about 60% of the revenues, according to testimony. If the residents of St. George leave, the budget for the consolidated city-parish will take a 20% hit.

Mary Olive Pierson, the city-parish’s lawyer on this issue, pointed out that in a consolidated form of government the city and the parish share revenues and expenditures. “Now they want to build a wall around it,” she said.

Since the sheriff’s office would provide police protection in St. George, the use of the old Woman’s Hospital building would benefit the citizens of the new city, White said, St. George should pay a pro rate share for the service.

“Everybody knows this is heading for litigation,” Claitor said, “and that’s where it’s going to be worked out.”

The legislation was sent to the House floor without amendments. If approved with 53 votes by the House without any more changes, SB229 would go to the governor. The session adjourns on June 6.

Voting in favor of creating a transition should voters elect to become a new city (11): Chairman Johnny Berthelot, R-Gonzales; and Reps. Robert Billiot, D-Westwego; Paula Davis, R-Baton Rouge; Mary DuBuisson, R-Slidell; Stephen Dwight, R-Lake Charles; Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge; Stephanie Hilferty, R-New Orleans; Mike Huval, R-Breaux Bridge; Stephen Pugh, R-Ponchatoula; Joseph Stagni, R-Kenner; and Mark Wright, R-Covington.

Voting against SB229 (5): Reps Sam Jenkins, D-Shreveport; Rodney Lyons, D-Harvey; C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge; Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport; and Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.