Some council members say tax proposal targets St. George

East Baton Rouge Parish officials are trying to pass an ordinance that would lock tax funds collected from unincorporated parts of the parish into the city-parish budget.

Some Metro Council members say the move could impede the proposed city of St. George — which is made up of the unincorporated land south of the city of Baton Rouge — from being able to take sales taxes generated in its region away from the city-parish budget.

But William Daniel, chief administrative officer for Mayor-President Kip Holden, said the move has nothing to do with St. George and will not prevent the new city from accessing sales taxes should voters decide to incorporate.

Despite being a consolidated form of government, the city-parish budget has for years contained “local service agreements” between the city of Baton Rouge and the unincorporated parts of the parish to jointly fund the local government.

The unincorporated areas of the parish will provide $52.5 million to fund city services in the 2014 budget, according to the local service agreement. The city-parish’s general fund budget is just less than $300 million.

The Metro Council will vote later this month on whether to put the local services agreement into an ordinance for 10 years, giving it the force of law.

But some council members say they’re not comfortable with what they see as an obvious attempt to undermine the city of St. George.

“I’m extremely concerned this could be a money grab of the city from the parish,” Councilman Buddy Amoroso said. “It appears that it is a vindictive move to try to stop the city of St. George.”

Amoroso, who represents residents in both the city of Baton Rouge and the proposed St. George area, said he will not take a side in the debate but believes parish officials should not try to block the formation of the city.

“If the city is created, we as a parish will have to figure out how to go forward financially,” he said.

Councilman Ryan Heck, who also represents residents in both areas, agreed the move appears designed to hurt St. George.

“This is Baton Rouge protecting itself, protecting its revenue stream, basically at the expense of the parish,” Heck said. “If the shoe was on the other foot and the St. George area generated a whole lot less money, you wouldn’t see Baton Rouge really care. But St. George is Baton Rouge’s cash register, so they’ve got to protect it.”

Daniel said the purpose of the ordinance is to specify how money collected in the parish is spent in the form of a formalized agreement.

“This doesn’t have an impact on them incorporating or running a city,” he said.

He noted it can be changed at any time with a vote of the Metro Council.

But Lionel Rainey, a spokesman for St. George organizers, was skeptical of the city official’s response.

“I think it’s pretty obvious why they’re doing it,” he said. “They sweep the money from the unincorporated parts of the parish and spend it on the city services. If this area was to become a municipality, they wouldn’t be able to do that.”

But Rainey said the local ordinance would be ineffectual.

“We don’t think that a law they come up with is going to trump the Louisiana constitution,” Rainey said.

Councilman John Delgado, a vocal opponent of the St. George effort, agreed with Daniel that the measure was merely formalizing a budget agreement and practice that has been in place for years.

But he conceded the measure would protect the current city-parish budget should St. George incorporate.

“I think it guarantees the services we’ve been providing to the people of East Baton Rouge Parish for years will continue despite changes that occur to the governing structure of the parish,” he said.

The effort to create the 85-square-mile city, with a population of 107,000 people, poses a threat to the city-parish budget because St. George contains some of the largest sales tax generators in the parish: the Mall of Louisiana, Perkins Rowe and L’Auberge Casino.

A report conducted by LSU economist Jim Richardson estimated that Baton Rouge would suffer a $53 million budget shortfall if St. George incorporated. But St. George officials dispute that and say it would be closer to $14 million.