The War Is Now On Between BRAC And St. George, And It’s Stupid And Unnecessary

So yesterday, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber – which isn’t just a chamber of commerce in Baton Rouge but is the city-parish’s economic development arm, and one could argue isn’t particularly good at either – came out against the incorporation of St. George, the proposed new city in the southern part of East Baton Rouge Parish. BRAC’s reasoning was lengthy, but not exceptionally persuasive

  • The proponents’ projected sales tax revenue estimate of $53.4 million alone is overestimated by roughly $20 million, according to city-parish Finance Department data and the proposed city’s proponents. “This 37 percent error calls into question the reliability of the budget plan prepared for the incorporation,” BRAC says.

We covered this claim when it was first made by mayor-president Sharon Weston Broome, noting that even if Broome’s math was correct (does anybody really think the city-parish is the final arbiter of dollars and cents in Baton Rouge given its fiscal record?), St. George still resides in the black to the tune of some $6-10 million. Most observers think the true number on sales tax collections in St. George will fall somewhere between the projections the incorporation organizers are making and Broome’s numbers, but the fact BRAC is accepting hers completely is a good indication of their loyalties.

  • The revenue error also calls into question expenditure estimates in the proposed city’s budget, sharpening BRAC’s concerns on the impact to services for the city-parish and St. George.

The St. George expenditure estimates are pretty straightforward, as the organizers don’t envision running a giant bureaucratic operation like the city-parish does. You would think an outfit like BRAC which purports to tout innovation and forward thinking would be taking a deep dive into best practices of 21st century urban governance and presenting alternatives not just for St. George but for Baton Rouge instead of simply poo-poohing people who plan to try something different.

  • In the prior incorporation effort, the city-parish agencies determined to be at the greatest risk of financial reductions were the police, fire and public works departments. Although no updated analysis is available on the new proposal, it’s expected to yield similar results.

And the judgements of “risk” to those departments were hotly contested then. Again, for BRAC to take the mayor’s line rather than form an independent analysis is an indication BRAC isn’t independent of City Hall.

  • Additional negotiation with the city-parish and sheriff over expenses, legacy costs and finances would be necessary in order to follow the model from the City of Central’s incorporation. This negotiation has not occurred.

Of course it hasn’t occurred. They’re still working on signatures for the incorporation petition.

  • The median household income for city-parish as a whole is $49,188, while the median household income of the proposed new city would be $88,061, or 79% higher.

Sounds pretty good for St. George, doesn’t it? What’s the complaint here – that a St. George incorporation would put all the rich people into one city? That isn’t particularly true, for one thing – there are lots of nice houses and neighborhoods inside the Baton Rouge city limits. For another, St. George would still be in East Baton Rouge Parish, and the city-parish government would still catch all the property tax paid from the mansions in St. George. And given the legally-dubious annexations of several commercial areas in what would have been St. George the city-parish still collects much of the sales tax in the area. Is BRAC saying that rich people don’t have the right to govern themselves, or that they have a duty to subject themselves to wealth redistribution?

  • An incorporation of a large section of the unincorporated area would weaken and threaten the combined form of city-parish government.

Most people think if St. George were to happen the unified form of government in Baton Rouge would need to change, and then Baton Rouge would have its own mayor and city council while East Baton Rouge Parish would have its own parish president and council. It’s not in evidence that this is a bad thing. Nobody particularly thinks the unified form of government is working all that well.

  • The newly-drawn boundaries of the proposed city would potentially capture public school facilities with enough capacity to educate only 4,700 students, or nearly 2,000 fewer students than currently live in the boundaries of the proposed city and currently attend public schools.

The incorporation of St. George the city doesn’t mean the incorporation of St. George the school district, and it’s a good bet the school district is going to be another colossal fight in itself. So those concerns are premature.

  • There are currently almost 6,600 children who live in the boundary of the proposed city and attend city-parish public schools, including nearly 1,900 who attend public magnet or gifted and talented schools outside of the area. There has been no plan presented to address the displacement of these students.

Again, that’s something to be addressed when there’s a new school district.

  • If property tax rates are maintained at current levels, a school district in the area would garner $36.3 million annually to fund education. This breaks down to $5,538 per pupil currently attending public schools and living within the proposed boundaries. By comparison, EBR Schools provides $7,371 per pupil through current property tax rates. Based on the proposed new city’s relatively higher wealth, it seems unlikely its level of MFP formula dollars would help make up the difference. Again, leaders of the proposed city not disclosed how or whether it will seek to provide an equal level of funding, nor have they explained the consequences of lower levels of per-pupil funding on the ability to provide high-quality public education.

So St. George’s schools have to be funded at the same level that the East Baton Rouge Parish school district are, or else they won’t be any good? News flash – EBR schools are atrocious, and they’re among the most richly-funded in the state. By contrast, Zachary and Central are two of the top five school districts in Louisiana and they’re funded at far less than EBR is. If anything is true in public policy, it’s that funding of public education bears little to no correlation with public school performance. If this is a key reason not to incorporate St. George the whole argument is quite weak.

St. George’s spokesman blew a fat raspberry at BRAC for its opposition.

“The status quo has always been against us,” spokesman Drew Murrell says. “It doesn’t matter one bit to us or our supporters.”

And then St. George responded to BRAC on Facebook

Today, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber locked arms with the Broome administration in opposition to the citizen led City of St. George incorporation movement. BRAC’s opposition comes as no surprise or consequence. What we did find surprising was the lack of effort and factual inaccuracies in their “findings.” Using the faulty analysis produced by Mayor-President Broome’s administration, they made critical errors in choosing what lines of the city’s spreadsheet to use in analyzing our financial viability, in addition to other basic mistakes.

The irony of BRAC and the Broome administration lecturing us on financial responsibility while the City of Baton remains the 5th most over-leveraged city in America is staggering.

At the end of the day, groups like BRAC, Together Baton Rouge, and the Broome administration will do or say anything to prevent the men and women who reside in the southern unincorporated portion of this parish from determining their own destiny.

Unfortunately for the status quo, this does not hamper or reduce our desire to provide a better life for our families-it validates our cause and encourages us to work even harder. Visit www.StGeorgeLouisiana.com today to learn how to sign.

It isn’t exactly fair to lump BRAC in with Together Baton Rouge. After all, BRAC was on the opposite side of TBR with respect to the catastrophic fight over the Industrial Tax Exemption Program, the failure of which puts the future of industrial economic development in Baton Rouge in jeopardy. That failure does, though, call into question why BRAC would have gotten involved in the St. George fight at all.

Let’s face it – BRAC has no stroke at City Hall anymore. Broome isn’t like her predecessor Kip Holden, who gave BRAC its contract as the city-parish’s economic development arm and included the organization in his strategic plans. To the extent Broome even has strategic plans beyond redistributing wealth from South Baton Rouge to North Baton Rouge, it’s clear BRAC isn’t involved in those.

So why toe her party line? Politically that’s dumb. If Broome isn’t going to listen to BRAC and work with the organization on its priorities, then BRAC’s best play is to remain agnostic about St. George – or even better, to attempt to play a constructive role in the new city’s development as a potential economic asset to the capital region. “If you’re going to do this, consider these options and these concerns” would be the way to handle it. That wouldn’t mean BRAC was supporting St. George; what it would mean is BRAC is staying out of the politics of the issue and instead attempting to work toward solutions given whatever circumstances were to arise.

Like business people, rather than political activists, do. BRAC is supposed to be a business organization, isn’t it?

Taking the position BRAC has taken means that if St. George happens, and it’s going to happen in all likelihood, though not until months and years of lawsuits and political wrangling have torn East Baton Rouge Parish to shreds, St. George will want nothing to do with BRAC – at least not given its current leadership. You’re almost certainly going to see a St. George Chamber of Commerce spring up and it will be rabidly critical of BRAC. Given that Louisiana Economic Development has appointed BRAC as the economic development entity for the whole capital region, that is a major mess waiting to happen.

Make no mistake, this is going to be a full-on war. And it’s going to be destructive. It’s why it was a dumb move for BRAC to get involved in the St. George issue this time.

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