St. George event raises $18,750

More than 150 people attended the first city of St. George fundraiser Sunday evening, generating at least $18,750 for the campaign to incorporate a new city in East Baton Rouge Parish.

Supporters paid $125 each to attend the event at Louisiana Lagniappe restaurant, where they sipped cocktails from the open bar, and enjoyed hors d’oeuvres of shrimp, fried fish, bruschetta and mini cupcakes.

Lionel Rainey, a spokesman for the St. George effort, said every dollar raised goes into the campaign to aid in the group’s first hurdle of collecting at least 18,000 signatures from registered voters to put incorporation to a vote.

Rainey also said St. George leaders will no longer update the public about how many signatures they have collected.

Earlier in January, he said they had about 10,000 signatures, but the number cannot be validated because St. George leaders never made the lists of signatures public and there is no legal requirement for the group to disclose its signature counts.

If the St. George proposition is placed on the ballot, only those living within its boundaries can vote.

The money raised will be used for buying signs, brochures and Facebook advertisements.

Eventually, Rainey said, the group may engage a firm to help promote the effort and conduct polling.

Rainey said more fundraisers likely will be held because he believes opponents representing the city of Baton Rouge are quietly raising money to finance an aggressive campaign against the St. George effort.

“We have got some of the biggest money in the parish up against us,” he said. “We know we’ll be outspent 10 to 1, but that’s OK.”

St. George organizers are not yet required to disclose their financial reports, which means donations are being made anonymously and there’s no way to know how many dollars have been raised or spent for the incorporation effort. The financial disclosure is only required once the issue is placed on the ballot for voters.

Rainey, who says he is working for free, estimated that as much as a $100,000 has already been spent out of the pockets of St. George supporters in the past two years for legal fees, lobbyists, signs and other services linked to the breakaway school district effort.

The effort to create a new city was born out of a desire to create and fund a new school system, which has twice failed in the Legislature.

Kevin Ortego, owner of Louisiana Lagniappe, donated food, drinks and his staff’s time to the event Sunday. He’s become one of the more visible business owners in the area to support the St. George incorporation.

Ortego said he got involved with the campaign when it became a city issue and not a school issue, because he doesn’t think the East Baton Rouge city-parish government supports businesses outside of downtown.

“I challenge anybody to find me a campaign that the city of Baton Rouge runs that doesn’t involve downtown,” he said. “I’ll compete with anyone, but why am I subsidizing my competition downtown?”

He said programs such as the Live after Five concert series on Friday nights are promoted by city leaders, while diverting customers away from his business.

Ortego said his visibility on the issue has caused some backlash for him with some customers saying they will no longer do business with him.

He said he passionately believes the people of St. George deserve an opportunity to vote on the issue.

“I’m almost 53 years old, and at some point, you’ve got to take a stand,” he said. “So I’m taking a stand.”

But most supporters of the new city still say the No. 1 issue for them is a separate school system.

“Education is a way for us to get up from off the bottom in a lot of things,” said Buddy Webre, “whether it’s creating future leaders in our parish or future money earners who create jobs.”

Webre, who no longer has school-age children, said he’s waited 40 years for the parish’s educational system to improve and now thinks incorporation is the only way to yield improvement.

Craig Polk, who lives in the Lakes at Jamestown subdivision, said he’s watched two of his brothers with children move to Ascension Parish for better schools.

“My mom taught in public schools, my sisters-in-law taught in public schools, so I know how bad it is, and it’s frustrating,” Polk said.

Polk also said he thinks St. George leaders can run a more streamlined, efficient government.

“One of the arguments of our opponents is how big and complicated the government is to run, and I say, ‘Exactly,’ ” he said.

“We don’t need all these fancy buildings and bureaucracy that no one can find their way through. We just need simple straightforward government.”

Norman Browning, the leader of the incorporation effort, offered some motivational remarks at the fundraiser, challenging arguments given by naysayers within city government.

“This is not about a small group of people,” he said, referencing Mayor-President Kip Holden’s comments in the state of the parish address this month.

“This is about a group of 107,000 individuals who are tired of an education system that fails students … and are tired of seeing their tax dollars thrown away.”

Holden and some city-parish officials have said the incorporation could damage the parish and city of Baton Rouge because it will divert millions of sales tax dollars out of the city-parish budget to fund St. George.

On Tuesday, the Better Together group, a grass-roots opposition to St. George, will host its first public assembly at 6:30 p.m. at St. George Catholic Church.