St. George incorporation effort reaching out to groups large and small

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Louisiana Politics

POSTED: Wednesday, October 9, 2013 - 4:00am

UPDATED: Wednesday, October 9, 2013 - 11:34am

More than 3,000 people have already signed a petition that could create a new city in East Baton Rouge Parish.

But the people behind the idea of St. George have a long way to go.

"Probably the most difficult part of this venture so far is educating people on the facts of this movement," said Dustin Yates, one of the chairmen of the St. George Incorporation Committee.

Yates said he and the other chairmen meet with small community groups nearly every day to explain the process of incorporation and answer questions. Tuesday he spoke at Highland Road Park to a small group organized by The Shire's civic association.

The city of St. George would encompass all of the unincorporated land in East Baton Rouge Parish south and east of the Baton Rouge city limits. Approximately 107,000 people currently live in that area.

Most of the questions directed to Yates Tuesday evening involved St. George's budget.

"There should be enough money to properly administer the city of St. George?" one man asked.

"No question," Yates replied. "No question."

Yates claimed that St. George would have roughly $75 million in revenue, partly from sales taxes collected in places such as the Mall of Louisiana, and partly from gaming taxes generated by L'Auberge Resort and Casino. It would utilize existing parish services, such as the St. George Fire Department and East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office, and would accumulate a $30 million surplus.

Yates said that if St. George were formed, residents would not be asked to pay higher taxes than they currently do.

"Because the revenue already exists here," he said. "We just aren't allowed to keep it, currently."

Some critics say keeping that money in St. George would weaken Baton Rouge.

"What good would it be for the city of St. George for the city of Baton Rouge to fail?" Yates asked rhetorically. "We're in the same parish, okay? That's the seat of not only our local government, but also our state government."

Instead, he claimed that incorporation could help the parish as a whole, by stopping families from leaving for Ascension or Livingston parishes.

"Last year alone, East Baton Rouge Parish had a growth rate of .02 percent," he stated. "Point zero two. What's it going to be next year, -.02, and then on the downward slide we go? Every person that leaves this parish, tax dollars go with them. Money to our school system goes with them."

Creating a new school system is the main factor behind the drive to incorporate. The incorporation committee was formerly known as Local Schools for Local Children, and its goal was to form a new school district in the parish's southeast corner. It tried to win legislative approval each of the last two years, but failed to get enough votes in the House. The bill would have created a constitutional amendment, which would require voters statewide to finally approve the new district.

Yates claimed that the fact that the district did not belong to a distinct city cost it votes.

"Going by what we were told," he recalled, "and going by the history of Central, what it tells us if we form a city and incorporate, that we can go back to the Legislature and we're not setting precedent. We're just doing something that's already been done before."

Yates got a few people to sign his petition before the evening ended. To create a new city, a petition must be signed by a quarter of the registered voters in the proposed area. Then a majority of the people who live within the designated boundaries must vote for it. To get the city of St. George on a ballot, Yates and company need roughly 18,000 verified signatures.

He encouraged people to sign the petition even if they are unsure about their desire for incorporation.

"Ultimately, all we're trying to do here is get something on a ballot and let the people choose," he claimed, "because that's what America is supposed to be about."

The group One Community One School District, which opposed the push for a breakaway school system each of the last two years, will hold an open meeting at 6:30 p.m. this Thursday at the Bluebonnet Branch Library. It will be its first such meeting since the St. George signature campaign began three weeks ago.

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