Together BR weighs in on incorporation effort

The faith-based advocacy group Together Baton Rouge waded into the St. George incorporation debate, and true to its name, the organization’s leaders have come out against the creation of the new city — expressing concern about further fracturing the parish.

“Instead of separating our communities further apart from one another, we believe that we must bind our fates and interests more deeply together to continue to see progress in our community,” the group said in a statement issued Thursday.

Together Baton Rouge describes itself as a nonpartisan grass-roots organization that draws the majority of its membership from faith-based institutions.

The group has taken on issues ranging from public education and transportation to Medicaid expansion.

St. George officials responded that Together Baton Rouge is behind the “Residents Against the Breakaway” anti-St. George movement known as “Better Together.”

“We suspected that Together Baton Rouge was the group behind the Better Together movement and now that appears to be true,” St. George organizers said in a statement. “Their response is virtually a carbon copy of the Better Together presentation” on Tuesday.

In their two-page statement, Together Baton Rouge leaders voiced three concerns related to the potential incorporation of the new city and creation of an independent school system: the negative impacts on the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, a budget shortfall in the city-parish and creating a community divide among parish residents.

Together Baton Rouge leaders cited Baton Rouge economist Jim Richardson’s report from late last year that found that a new school system would reduce East Baton Rouge Parish’s per pupil funding from $9,635 to $8,870 — an 8 percent cut in per pupil funding.

The report said it would also displace 7,000 students from their current schools of choice, including 6,209 students who live in the southeast unincorporated part of the parish and attend schools in the city of Baton Rouge, and 787 students who live in the city and attend schools in the unincorporated areas.

Together Baton Rouge also pointed to Richardson’s estimate that the city-parish would lose $53 million per year in sales taxes, because it would lose taxes generated in the Mall of Louisiana and Perkins Rowe. The group noted that the dip in revenue amounts to a 20 percent cut.

“The city of Detroit faced an annual deficit of 12.5 percent in 2012 — the year before it went bankrupt,” the statement said.

St. George officials maintain the deficit would be closer to $14 million because they promise to return $39 million to the city-parish. But Together Baton Rouge officials noted that the promise is not legally binding.

“We know of no precedent in the history of the nation for that kind of voluntary transfer between government entities; we think it unwise to believe that such a precedent would be set in this case,” Together Baton Rouge’s statement said.

Broderick Bagert, a Together Baton Rouge organizer, said Thursday’s statement by the group’s executive committee is the first official action Together Baton Rouge has taken regarding the St. George issue, despite claims from St. George officials that the group is behind the opposition to the new city.

He said Together Baton Rouge has not contributed any of its money to Residents Against the Breakaway’s campaign and has not raised funds for the group.

Still, some leaders and organizers of Residents Against the Breakaway, including Dianne Hanley, are heavily involved in Together Baton Rouge. Hanley was a key voice in the Capital Area Transit System campaign, when Together Baton Rouge helped promote the April 2012 tax election.

At the Better Together public assembly on Tuesday, Hanley was a key speaker, and Bagert helped direct the event. The event followed the same format that Together Baton Rouge has become known for — highlighting personal testimonials from people affected by the specific issue under discussion.

Bagert said Together Baton Rouge has been hesitant to jump into the debate, because its executive committee members believe the issue should be driven by residents of the unincorporated area.

He noted that some Together Baton Rouge leaders who live in that area have become involved in Residents Against the Breakaway and have shared their organizational skills and techniques. But he said the two nonprofits are entirely independent.