Central blazed trail for St. George incorporation effort

CENTRAL — If the battle to form a new City of St. George has a familiar ring to it, there’s a reason.

Ten years ago, residents of Central embarked on a similar campaign. It, too, began with an effort to create their own school district. And after that failed, they also turned to a petition drive to form their own city to achieve their goal of creating their own school system.

To be sure, there are pronounced differences between the communities and the impact their incorporation poses for Louisiana’s capital city and the region.

Central is rural, with Wal-Mart its largest business; the proposed City of St. George, in contrast, includes such major economic drivers as the Mall of Louisiana, Perkins Rowe, L’Auberge Casino and a variety of other suburban shopping centers, businesses and industries.

While Central’s 2013-2014 general fund budget includes $6.4 million in revenues and $5 million in expenditures, the proposed budget for the city of St. George, with a population several times that of Central, is more than $70 million.

The sales taxes at stake in the quest to incorporate St. George have city-parish leaders and some city-parish residents in full battle mode to stop the city from going forward.

“With St. George you’re talking about a much bigger piece of the pie,” said State Sen. Mack “Bodi” White.

White, then a state representative, filed a constitutional amendment proposition a decade ago in an initial, unsuccessful effort to create a school district in Central. White also was the author of the failed constitutional amendment proposition in 2013 that, had it passed, would have allowed residents of the St. George area to go to the polls and decide on a school district for St. George.

White said Central’s incorporation as a city turned out to be a more significant step forward for residents than just creating an independent school system, even though Central’s school system ranks in the top 10 school districts in the state.

“Central is the city of the future. Things are better here. I ride the streets of Central and see that things are better,” White said.

“I’m walking into the Mike Anderson’s (restaurant) in Central for lunch right now. You think that would have been here before without the city?” White asked.

Central, with a population of a little more than 27,500, is bounded by the Comite River to the west and south, the Amite River and Livingston Parish line to the east and La. 64 to the north.

Examining the finances of the city of Central today and looking back at the sales pitch incorporation proponents made to residents in 2004, it appears nobody broke any promises.

The city of Central operates on a 2 percent sales tax. That sales tax used to go to the city-parish prior to the incorporation. The city collects no property taxes for its operations, although a dedicated property tax goes to support Central schools.

Taxes remain as promised

In addition to the 2 percent sales tax, the city’s revenue includes fees from businesses locating in the city, as well as occupational license fees, building permit fees and car insurance taxes.

“The promise was to provide services that were as good or better than the city-parish,” said Central Chief Administrative Officer David Barrow, a resident of the community for 22 years.

Through the years, Central has also built up a budget surplus of almost $20 million. Almost half of that is earmarked for future road and drainage improvements while about $8 million is unassigned, Barrow said.

In 2004, when the head of the Central incorporation effort, Russell Starns, was trying to gather petition signatures, he assured residents the city could be set up and run without an increase in taxes. The proposed revenues for the not-yet-created city then was $5 million to $6 million a year, Starns said.

The number, for the most part, has remained at that level.

“I mean, I knew it was going to work as long as we didn’t elect a mayor and council that would spend way too much money,” Starns, 56, said in a recent interview.

“When you start to add extra services — if you ever decide to build a performing arts center or something — that’s when you start to pay more,” Starns said.

One of the toughest parts of incorporation, Starns said, was trying to obtain detailed information needed from the city-parish about what exactly was collected in taxes in the area and what that money was spent on.

Starns said the city-parish was not cooperative with those seeking to incorporate Central and put out a steady stream of misinformation about the effort.

“Let’s just say their numbers were wrong,” Starns said.

Walter Monsour served as Mayor-President Kip Holden’s chief administrative officer in 2005 during the lead up to the April 2005 incorporation vote.

Monsour said some Central residents at the time were under the impression that both the city and the school system could be created without any new taxes.

“As I recall, several people that were talking with me were under the impression both the city and school system could happen without taxes,” Monsour said.

The school system, once created in 2006, had to levy property taxes to fund the district.

Starns had said all along that the city and only the city — could operate without imposing new taxes. Their answer was to privatize municipal services.

Privatization on small budget

Central is in the middle of a more than $3 million annual five-year contract with a Virginia-based organization — The Institute for Building Technology and Safety — which handles public works and certain other city services.

City officials have said there are savings in not having to pay government retirement and benefits to public works employees.

Central has seven elected officials, the mayor and police chief and five council members who are elected at large. There are just two full-time employees, Barrow and the assistant to Central Mayor Shelton “Mac” Watts.

“Privatization is the biggest factor in the city’s success,” said attorney Sherri Morris, who works under contract as city attorney for Central. “They made their case that the city could be self-sustaining with the privatization and a conservative budget.”

Central has a contract with Morris’s law firm — Roedel Parsons Koch Blache Balhoff & McCollister — to handle Central’s legal affairs. The contract amount is for up to $80,000 for the current fiscal year.

Most of Central’s legal work is handled by Morris, who was the attorney for Citizens of Northeast Baton Rouge for the Incorporation of Central in 2004 and 2005 and is currently working with a group of St. George residents trying to create an independent school system there.

Before its contract with the Institute for Building Technology and Safety, Central contracted in 2008 with the company CH2M Hill to handle public works and city services. Prior to that, from 2005 to 2008, the city-parish administered city services on its own.

Barrow, Watts and Central City Council members Aaron Moak and Louis DeJohn all called the first contract with CH2M Hill a learning process.

“We weren’t exactly sure what we wanted or what we needed with the first contract,” DeJohn said.

The city decided in 2010 not to extend its three-year contract with CH2M Hill.

The new contract with IBTS includes certain services that were not in the previous agreement, including online permitting and having a local engineer available, Watts said.

IBTS provides public works services, planning and zoning services and handles permits and inspections. The public works services include fixing pot holes, drainage work, and grass cutting.

CH2M Hill came under fire during its time in Central when a weekly newspaper owned by former legislator Woody Jenkins filed a lawsuit against the firm in 2010 over access to public records.

CH2M Hill fought Jenkins’ request, saying it was a private company and was not subject to the state’s public records law. The case was eventually settled with a ruling stating that the documents are public.

Some city-parish services

Law enforcement is primarily handled by the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office. The city has an elected police chief who is paid and reserve officers who work as volunteers.

The Sheriff’s Office’s services are covered by property taxes residents in Central have always paid to the city-parish, Barrow said. Barrow also said the city includes approximately $100,000 in the city budget annually to pay to the Sheriff’s Office as a supplement for extra patrols in the city limits.

Central also pays the East Baton Rouge Parish Animal Control Center $114,000 a year for its services through an intergovernmental agreement, Barrow said.

The city-parish handles sewer and garbage services and residents still pay fees to the city-parish for those services, as do other city and parish residents.

The property taxes Central residents pay also go to toward other city-parish services, such as BREC, parish libraries and mosquito control.

Forming EBR’s fourth city

Central became East Baton Rouge Parish’s fourth city after a special election in April 2005. Some 5,126 people went to the polls, voting 63 percent to 37 percent to incorporate. At the time of the election there were about 18,000 residents registered to vote in the Central community.

Before getting the proposal on the ballot in 2005, Starns and his group, Citizens of Northeast Baton Rouge for the Incorporation of Central, launched the first of two petition drives in 2004 to get the issue on the ballot.

During the first drive, supporters collected more than 4,000 signatures. However, Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti rejected that petition on technical grounds.

Rather than appeal the decision through the courts, the group decided to pursue another petition drive, gathering enough signatures in early 2005 for a March election.

Not everyone was happy about the formation of Central as a city.

Central attorney Robert Raborn filed a lawsuit on behalf of residents opposed to incorporation to try to stop the election but the suit was dropped because it wasn’t filed in time.

Raborn came back and flied a second lawsuit after the incorporation to nullify the election results by asking a judge to overturn a 2002 court ruling that paved the way for incorporation.

Raborn declined an interview request to talk about what he thinks of Central’s incorporation now.

Morris said incorporation proponents were not really expecting Raborn’s legal challenge.

However, the lawsuit and delays due to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 gave the city’s new mayor and council almost two years to find their way and learn how to govern, Morris said.

DeJohn said the beauty of Central as a city is more voices.

“Before it was just one Metro Council member looking out for us but now we have a mayor and five council members,” DeJohn said.

Monsour said he thinks the residents of Central “got everything they were looking for.”

“They got control of their own school district,” Monsour said. “I’m assuming they have a quality of life that they see fit for them. For us (the city-parish), Central was always a revenue neutral situation.”

Moak said Central also had something St. George doesn’t appear to possess.

“The community of Central was always known as Central. We were always a community, even before we incorporated. That feeling of community, I don’t know if St. George really has that,” Moak said.

White said it took “time, effort and expense” to create Central.

“What the story of Central tells me, looking back, is that we had a whole community rally around the idea of a city and a school system,” White said.