Based on the votes cast in recent elections, you can make two political arguments about the boundaries of the proposed St. George “city” movement.
The most obvious is that Sharon Weston Broome did not get most of the votes in 2016 in the area that sprawls through gerrymandered lines from Shenandoah down to the river in the southwestern part of the parish. That makes the argument that Broome should let others take the lead in the discussion leading up to an Oct. 12 vote.
Broome is black, and the organizers of the latest St. George petition cut out as many black residents as possible, down to about 12% from the one in five in the lines proposed in the 2015 petition drive, critics noted.
But Broome and fellow critics of the St. George proposal also look to other votes to show that the 80,000-plus residents of the region want public services. Can a cobbled-together group of residential neighborhoods pay for them?
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Public services cost money, and that is where the mayor-president and citizen groups opposed to the secession from consolidated government are focusing their attention.
Meeting with The Advocate editorial board, Broome and representatives of OneBTR.com made the case that the proposed city of St. George would not have the tax base to support the services that residents want, and that they have backed in previous elections. Despite the current era of what’s-in-it-for-me, the argument of the unity movement is that the only way to pay for the costs of a large urban area is together.
Nor can St. George escape its legacy costs, the obligations incurred over decades to pay for retirees and other government debts. Retirement systems aren’t going to allow a secession vote to cut the revenues that are constitutionally as well as morally obligated to pay for retiree benefits.
Certainly, a prospective new school system in St. George would be a significant additional expense, essentially in property taxes, for the new city. But the city would be formed first. Broome argued that along with inevitable tax increases the proposed St. George would need for municipal services, advocates of the new city aren't counting the vaster new costs of a separate school system. Taxes have increased in the previous breakaway district of Central, for example. Central was, in any case, a more coherent community than the sprawl of the St. George map.
Further, the idea of a school system all its own in white neighborhoods is difficult to achieve through the Legislature. “What they are doing now (on Oct. 12) is not guaranteeing a successful school system,” Broome noted.
There is a historical irony in this: In the late 1940s, East Baton Rouge’s consolidated government was considered the cutting edge of government reform. The idea was to cut costs and avoid duplication and to provide the larger tax base to accommodate growth.
For the St. George neighborhoods, Broome said the city-parish has been a benefit, not a liability. Although they're about 20% of the parish’s population, the residents of St. George neighborhoods are to receive a third of the road and sidewalk projects in the Broome road program now under way. About 40% of the Green Light program in Mayor-President Kip Holden’s administration also went to the southeastern part of the parish.
Today, more localities — not just in Louisiana — have embraced what Broome argues is a shortsighted “cityhood” movement that is already beginning to fray. Brexit writ small has been found to be expensive across the South. Costs and expectations are not working out for the public, although folks who want to become the elected and appointed officials of the new enclaves benefit. “The result is a redundancy of government,” Broome said.
That should be on the minds of residents. The urbanized area that is considered Baton Rouge stretches beyond political boundaries, but each government subdivision must be solicited and lobbied to participate in decisions. Too many cooks? Good for those who want a government job title, but harder for a region tied together economically and socially to make binding decisions.
Email Lanny Keller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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