Panel rejects St. George transition

Organizers attempting to create the city of St. George suffered a setback Thursday at the State Capitol. However, the blow isn’t expected to be fatal to their efforts.

The Senate Committee on Local and Municipal Affairs rejected Senate Bill 638 after committee members denounced efforts to turn unincorporated parts of East Baton Rouge Parish into a new city. The bill would have triggered a transition plan should St. George become a return address.

The new city would be 84.6 square miles and have a population of 107,262 people, making St. George the fifth-largest city in the state. Organizers hope to add the issue to the Nov. 4 ballot.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Bodi White, told the committee he wanted to make the transition as smooth as possible.

He cautioned a transition will be needed only if enough signatures are gathered and verified, the governor calls an election and a favorable vote materializes.

“As I stated publicly and to my colleagues, I think it’s a step in the right direction. It still has a ways to go. It’s not complete. There’s no guarantee it’s going to complete the cycle,” said White, R-Central.

The idea behind SB638 was to set up a system for tax collections and distributions, as well as a government structure 30 days ahead of the vote on creating the city. Discussion of the bill quickly turned into a criticism of the city itself.

“What is the reason for doing this? Why are we creating more government?” asked state Sen. Karen Peterson, D-New Orleans.

White said organizers tried for two years to break away from the East Baton Rouge Parish Public School System. He said legislators told them to create their own municipality, like the town of Central did.

“Why not work within the system to improve what exists?” Peterson asked, adding that it would be fiscally inefficient to carve out a section of the parish.

White said he hasn’t had anyone in south Baton Rouge tell him they were against the bill.

“This is a petition and a vote by folks in an unincorporated area. Do I think it will resolve their issue? I don’t know. I can’t see the future like that,” he said.

The committee’s chairwoman, state Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb, disagreed that St. George has overwhelming support.

“My constituents are absolutely not in favor of this,” she said.

Peterson chimed in, warning against creating little governments. She said the practice can become prevalent.

St. George backers pointed out Zachary and Central broke away and succeeded.

Sherri Morris, a city attorney for Central, said Central operates with a budget and a huge surplus. She said Central privatized certain government functions so it could focus on education.

After sitting quietly during much of the meeting, Norman Browning, leader of the effort to incorporate St. George, made a plea to the committee.

“All we’re asking is for an opportunity to get this to a vote. ... This gives the city the legs it needs,” he said.

Mayor-President Kip Holden’s chief administrative officer, William Daniel, said the new city will simply duplicate government services, creating a new mayor, a new city council and a new public works department. He questioned how the answer to a conservative movement can be to create more government.

Daniel said St. George would be a $68 million to $100 million financial hit to the city-parish government.

“We have a consolidated form of government. We have a consolidated form of government that’s worked very well,” he said.

The committee rejected the bill, with one member voting for it and four voting against it.

After the meeting, White said the bill’s failure isn’t fatal.

“It just won’t be a smooth transition,” he said.

Browning said organizers are close to having the number of signatures they need by July 23. He refused to divulge how many signatures they already have.

“This doesn’t kill the effort,” he said, referring to the committee’s vote.

Later in the day, Lionel Rainey, a spokesman for the St. George movement, posted on Facebook: “This is irresponsible leadership by Senator Sharon Weston Broome and Senator Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb. You can’t complain ... about the financial implications St. George incorporation would have on the City of Baton Rouge and then defeat a piece of legislation written to alleviate those implications. The transition district bill (SB638) was a good bill. However, once again the status quo has decided that voters do not matter.”

Advocate writer Rebekah Allen contributed to this report.

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