Petition drive to incorporate Watson halfway to its goal

A group petitioning to incorporate the Livingston Parish community of Watson has gathered about half the signatures needed to put the issue on a ballot, and organizers said another town hall meeting and petition drive are in the works.

Members of the community group Neighbors In Action began circulating the petition in April to form a new city with the same boundaries as the Livingston Parish School Board’s bonding district for Live Oak schools.

The 35-square-mile area includes about 22,000 residents, making Watson the largest municipality in the parish if the initiative is successful, said Darla Steagall, one of the petition’s organizers.

The group hopes to collect at least 4,000 signatures, but only 25 percent of the area’s roughly 12,000 registered voters, or about 3,000 signatures, are needed to get the initiative placed on a ballot, Steagall said.

The group is aiming high to ensure enough signatures make it through the verification process with the Registrar of Voters, she said.

“We’re finding that many who sign don’t realize they may have changed their name or address” since registering to vote, Steagall said. “We might actually have more (valid signatures) than we think, but we try to rule out any on our list that might not match up” with the official voter rolls.

Once enough signatures are verified, the issue would be put to a vote within the proposed city boundaries.

Steagall said the group hopes to make it onto the April ballot but, depending on timing, could see its initiative slated for a special election instead.

The biggest benefit of incorporation, and the goal of the initiative, is to give the people of Watson a voice in decisions affecting their community, particularly regarding future growth, said Bill Johnson, another Neighbors In Action member and petition organizer.

From opposing the Baton Rouge Loop to supporting the extension of Hooper Road across the Amite River into Livingston Parish, Watson residents could have a greater impact if they formed a city with its own governing body to speak for them, Johnson said.

“There are a lot of things that could be considered and dealt with, but we need to be incorporated to do them,” he said. “So we started looking at what it takes to get incorporated.”

After 18 months of research into the Lawrason Act, the law that guides the incorporation of villages, towns and cities, and discussions with the Louisiana Municipal Association, mayors, the Livingston Parish Council and officials from recently incorporated areas, the Watson group put together a proposed budget and funding plan and began to make the case for incorporation to their neighbors.

The budget estimates $425,000 to $560,000 in expenditures, including salaries for the mayor, police chief and five aldermen required under the Lawrason Act.

The group proposes covering those expenses by collecting an estimated $686,250 in electric utility franchise fees to be billed through Entergy and Demco. The two companies collectively serve about 9,000 households in the proposed city.

No additional property taxes or sales taxes would be needed to fund the limited government model the group envisions, Steagall said.

Expenses would be kept to a minimum by relying on existing services provided by parish government and the Sheriff’s Office, she said.

“We already have good law enforcement, fire protection, drainage, garbage collection and great schools,” Steagall said. “There’s not really any need for us to have a huge government with millions of dollars if we don’t need it, and right now we don’t.”

With the community’s population projected to double in 10 years, however, additional revenue streams may be required, Steagall said.

“If there’s another property tax or sales tax in the future, it’s not one that I have planned or know about,” she said. “But I could see a city of 50,000 people doing something more.”

Additional franchise fees, for example, on telephone, cable, gas or water services might provide an option, Steagall said.

Any additional property or sales taxes would have to be approved by the voters, she said.

The possibility of a layer of government creating another layer of taxes led several area businessmen to oppose a previous attempt to incorporate Watson in 1999.

That year, a proposal with similar goals but different physical boundaries was overwhelmingly defeated at the polls with 1,477 votes against it and 579 in favor of it.

But the area has grown considerably since then as has the need for incorporation, Johnson said.

“This was a really rural area back then,” Johnson said, noting there were only about 6,000 residents within the proposed city in 1999. “There were no large subdivisions like we have today, no three elementary schools feeding into a middle and high school, no development and no expansion.”

“If they had been successful in 1999, I think Watson would be a lot different than it is today,” he said. “But it didn’t happen. And the second-best time to incorporate is now.”