Hundreds turn out to oppose St. George effort

Opponents of an effort to create a new city in East Baton Rouge Parish have started distributing yard signs and fundraising — the initial phases of a campaign that will target St. George’s incorporation attempt.

About 400 people turned out for the launch of the Better Together campaign at a meeting Tuesday night.

“We need to create a massive, energized grass-roots movement,” said Better Together organizer Vicki Brooks, who encouraged attendees to fill out volunteer cards and take yard signs. “If you think someone else is going to do this for us, think again. We are it.”

Supporters of the St. George effort have spent the past four months circulating petitions to put their proposal on the ballot.

They need 18,000 registered voters in the proposed city limits to sign on, and claim to be halfway there. There is no requirement that they provide an exact or accurate number so some opponents have questioned the signature count.

There is no deadline for the St. George campaign to get the 18,000 petition signatures, and only those people who live within the boundaries of the proposed city would be able to vote in the special election.

Tuesday’s meeting was the first major indicator of the pushback they will likely face as they try to get the remaining several thousand signatures.

The Better Together attendees heard a 20-minute presentation on the potential impact the new city’s creation would have on Baton Rouge and the parish, including the potential for a $53 million hit to the city-parish budget and decreased public services.

“We all put in to build up this area and we all spend money there to build up the tax base,” Dianne Hanley said during the presentation. “That money would be redirected to the new city.”

St. George supporters have disputed that figure, largely based on their proposal to give the city-parish budget money to compensate for some of the loss.

Hanley said that the plan in St. George’s proposed budget to give money back to Baton Rouge for some parish services doesn’t hold legal authority, though.

“Where in the history of our nation have we ever known of this kind of promise being kept?” she asked.

Better Together organizers also stressed the impact on education, which is, coincidentally, the key issue that put St. George supporters on the path to incorporation.

St. George supporters claim the creation of a new city would help the area form its own school district, essentially breaking away from East Baton Rouge Parish Schools.

Many of the organizers behind the pro-St. George campaign have said they got involved because they feel they have to send their children to private school to get a quality education in the unincorporated area.

Lara Gautreau, who lives in the proposed St. George boundaries but said she opposes the incorporation attempt and spoke at Tuesday’s Better Together meeting, has two daughters in the gifted program in East Baton Rouge.

“Their teachers are fabulous; the students in their classes very diverse,” she said, noting one of her daughters learned to sing “Happy Birthday” in Arabic when she was in kindergarten.

After Hurricane Katrina, Gautreau received a job offer in Kansas but said she decided to stay in Baton Rouge because she felt her daughters would only have had a comparable educational experience if she sent them to private school there.

“We are really scared and sad at the idea that the choices we have made and the plans we have in place may not happen,” she said. “It really feels as if the rug is being pulled out from under us.”

Gautreau said she knows her experience isn’t the same for every family in East Baton Rouge Parish schools, but she said she thinks the energy going into the incorporation effort could be better spent on improving education.

“It really upsets me that we’re here wasting our time trying to do this, rather than improving schools,” she said.

The pro-St. George campaign recently held its first fundraiser and drew more than 150 attendees. Organizers have declined to say how much money the $125 per-person event brought in but tickets alone would put the till at more than $18,750.

St. George supporters repeatedly have stressed they are facing a fight against City Hall, which could include big financial backers who benefit from the parish staying as it is. Mayor-President Kip Holden recently has begun speaking out against the effort.

But the anti-St. George group stressed it’s also a grass-roots movement. Organizers passed buckets down rows of attendees, urging them to donate to the effort.

“We don’t have a Daddy Warbucks, so we’re going to have to have an ‘everybody gives’ campaign,” Hanley said. “It can be $5; it can be $15; it can be $500.”

Earlier this week, Metro Councilman John Delgado, a frequent critic of the St. George incorporation effort, urged his Facebook followers to attend the meeting and donate to a separate anti-St. George group called Community Issues Inc.

Leaders of Community Issues Inc. haven’t publicly discussed their efforts against St. George but reportedly held a meeting late last year to give a group of about 40 business and community leaders a preview of the report on St. George’s financial impact on Baton Rouge.

That study, conducted by LSU economists for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and Baton Rouge Area Foundation, claims that St. George’s incorporation would lead to a $53 million budget shortfall in Baton Rouge.