Holden: Forming a St. George city threatens area progress

Mayor-President Kip Holden blasted an ongoing effort to form a new city in East Baton Rouge Parish during his annual State of the Parish address Wednesday, making his strongest anti-St. George statements to date.

St. George’s creation would lead to costly legal battles, create duplicated services in the parish and ultimately harm Baton Rouge, Holden told a crowd gathered in a Crowne Plaza ballroom for his speech.

“We are better together than apart,” he said. “The state of our city is strong and it is our duty to keep it that way.”

St. George proponents have spent the past four months building a support base and drawing attention to their goal of creating an affluent new city in the southern unincorporated area of the parish — an area that’s about 84 square miles and has more than 100,000 residents.

Holden had remained mostly removed from the ongoing debate until Wednesday’s remarks.

During his nearly 30-minute address, Holden touted Baton Rouge’s progress in 2013, including IBM’s plans to open a technology center downtown, a drop in the city’s murder rate and continued growth of the film industry here. He then segued into criticism of the St. George effort, calling the proposed new city “something that could threaten the progress we have made.

“A new city would have to elect a mayor, another council, a police chief and then it would have to assume responsibilities for police, fire, garbage collection, public works and other typical city services for more than 100,000 people,” Holden said. “In other words, it would have to duplicate the government and services currently being provided by our consolidated form of government and you know what duplicated services means — duplicated costs.”

St. George proponents, who have planned a $125-per-person fundraiser later this month to further ramp up efforts, said in a statement that Holden could have used his speech to address the concerns of people who live in the southern part of the parish.

“Instead, he chose to dismiss their concerns, belittle St. George supporters and vilify the incorporation movement leaders through factually inaccurate rhetoric,” the statement said.

Proponents need signatures from 18,000 registered voters who live in St. George’s proposed boundaries to get the incorporation attempt on a ballot.

As of Wednesday, St. George spokesman Lionel Rainey III said, organizers have collected nearly 10,000 signatures — more than half of the registered voters required to get the proposal on a ballot. State law doesn’t require disclosure of the exact number, so some opponents have questioned the figures reported.

Holden repeatedly referred to the St. George effort as being driven by “a small group of people” during his speech.

He described the incorporation attempt as “one that is not based on a sound fiscal rationale and one that will most certainly face many legal challenges.

“Who will pay for the years of legal expenses this will result in? What will happen when large tax increases are needed just to maintain existing levels of services?” Holden said.

Meanwhile, Gov. Bobby Jindal didn’t take a position on St. George during a Wednesday news conference.

“Look, I tend to think that locals should get to decide for themselves,” he said. “So I defer to local people, not only on this issue but in general.”

A 28-page financial impact study commissioned by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and conducted by LSU economists concluded Baton Rouge would face a $53 million budget shortfall if St. George were to successfully incorporate. St. George proponents have disputed the figure, saying the real impact would be closer to $14 million.

Rainey said he thought Holden’s remarks on St. George were dismissive and “about power and control.”

“Last I checked, he’s the mayor-president, and not just the mayor of Baton Rouge,” he said. “It makes no sense for the city of St. George to do anything to harm Baton Rouge. Families are leaving this parish at record pace and young people aren’t moving back. We want to change that.”

In promoting their Jan. 26 fundraiser, St. George advocates have claimed Baton Rouge’s “wealthy elite” want to quietly kill their efforts and preserve their own financial interests that are tied to city-parish government.

“It will be vital that we raise money to continue our education efforts, put this on a ballot and run a campaign,” the pro-St. George group wrote on its Facebook page. “We are not funded by the wealthy elite. It will take your help and your buy-in to get this done.”

The St. George movement started as an attempt to create a new school district in the southern portion of the parish. Supporters say they believe forming a new city will lend more support to that effort.

Holden said he thinks St. George advocates should keep their focus on schools and not creating a new city.

“There is no perfect school system, which is why every one of us should be committed to improving our schools,” Holden said. “But the way to do that is not to cripple the strongest local economy in the state of Louisiana and one of the strongest in the nation. The way to do that is to work together to fix what is broken.”