New city sought for school district

Possible New Municipality
Possible New Municipality

Residents of southeast Baton Rouge fighting for an independent school district are taking a page from the city of Central and mounting a campaign to form their own municipality.

For two years, some residents in the southeast part of the parish — under the group name Local Schools for Local Children — have taken their battle to the state legislature, lobbying to splinter from the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

But after failing for a second time to garner the necessary votes to begin the process of forming a new district, some residents are calling for the creation of a new city — one that would swallow a huge swath of the parish

But adding a fifth city to East Baton Rouge Parish could further splinter the parish, could take a large chunk of tax revenues from the city-parish government and might result in higher taxes for residents of the new municipality, some city-parish officials contend.

Norman Browning, leader of Local Schools for Local Children, said the group has already had one meeting to gauge support of incorporation and plans to hold another one soon.

If there’s enough interest — and he thinks there will be — a petition campaign could kick off by August.

“What got our interest was you had those (state) representatives that kept saying, ‘Well, you’re not a city, you’re not a city,’ ” he said. “If that’s what it takes for us to have a strong school system, then that’s what we’re going to need to do.”

Thus far, the organizers have not yet come up with a name for the proposed new city. Supporters have not yet set borders for the potential city, but they are tentatively eyeing the unincorporated part of the parish contained within the St. George and the East Side fire protection districts, Browning said.

The combined fire districts serve more than 100,000 residents, of whom 73,500 are registered voters — which would make the municipality the second largest in the parish, next to the city of Baton Rouge.

William Daniel, chief administrative officer for Mayor-President Kip Holden, said there could be detrimental financial impacts to the city-parish if the area were to incorporate.

“It’s not anything like Central becoming its own city,” Daniel said. “There are so many more legal issues involved in this.”

The city of Central, with a population of about 30,000, of whom 19,800 are registered voters, incorporated in 2005. The incorporation effort was seen as a quicker path for Central to get its own school district. The Central Community school system was subsequently established in 2007 and, by 2012, became the fourth top-ranked school system in the state.

Incorporation requires a petition with 25 percent of registered voters in the area — meaning a new city in southeast Baton Rouge would need more than 18,000 signatures if it were to use the boundaries of the two fire districts.

Once the petition is verified by the parish Registrar of Voters, the governor would call a special election and registered voters in the proposed area would vote on whether to incorporate.

State Sen. Bodi White, who spearheaded the legislative effort to create the school district, said getting signatures for the petition will be the greatest hurdle. White, a Central Republican, was also involved in Central’s incorporation and school district. Central’s petition required about 5,000 signatures.

White said if the residents of southeast Baton Rouge are successful with their petition, the area would be ripe for a city.

“I definitely think they’re an area that can sustain themselves if they choose that path,” he said. “Their tax dollars will pay for that area.”

Central, Zachary and Baker each receive a portion of a 2 percent parish sales tax to run their governments — money that would have otherwise flown into city-parish coffers.

Russell Starns, who led Central’s incorporation effort and is a former member of the Central Community School Board, said it’s in the city-parish government’s interest to help southeast Baton Rouge residents get their own school district without creating a city.

“The city of Baton Rouge better be worried about it,” Starns said. “They will lose all of their sales tax. You’re talking millions and millions of dollars.”

Daniel said there’s no guarantee the city-parish would release the sales taxes to a new city, especially one with such a large population.

The city-parish has issued debt that is expected to be repaid with projected parish sales taxes, he said. Diverting sales taxes to a new city could hamper the city-parish’s ability to pay its debts.

He said if a new city is created, it would likely have to levy additional taxes to operate its government.

Metro Councilman Joel Boé, whose district is encompassed by the proposed city’s boundaries, said a fifth municipality is “a step in the wrong direction.”

“It has the ability to fracture our parish even more than it already is,” he said. “In a day in time when we’re all trying to create less bureaucracy and trying to get the government out of our lives, we’d be creating another layer of government by creating another city.”

He also noted that taking over city functions is an onerous task.

“Central is still, I wouldn’t say struggling, but they’re having a hard time from a public works standpoint, and a police and fire standpoint,” he said.

But Boé said if his district demonstrated support for the movement, he would not actively advocate against the wishes of his constituents.

Councilman Buddy Amoroso, whose district would be split in half by a new city, supports both the school system and the effort for a new city.

He said smaller cities bring residents closer to their government.

“The closer people are to their governments, the better it is,” he said.

Amoroso said one major benefit is that the municipalities have more control over their planning and zoning issues. But he noted that some of the municipalities do levy higher taxes.

The sales tax in Baton Rouge and Zachary is 9 percent. Central and Baker both have 9.5 percent sales taxes, with a half cent of Central’s tax going to schools and a half cent in Baker going to police and fire.

Starns noted the higher sales taxes were self-imposed by the people of the new cities for the school systems, not for municipal government purposes.

Aside from the school district, he said, Central is “a thousand times better off” as an independent city.

Central runs a more efficient government, he said, because it employs only three people and has privatized its services.

Starns said controlling planing and zoning has been a major benefit.

“Before, if something from Central went to (East Baton Rouge Parish) Planning and Zoning, for the most part, no one cared if you wanted to stick a metal building somewhere,” he said. “We were just some rural part of the parish. Now we control our own destiny.”

Editor’s note: The story was changed on June 24 to correct the sales tax collections in Baker.