Park Forest neighborhood security costs to be debated

Baton Rouge’s Park Forest neighborhood ran out of money for paid security patrols in August. Two weeks later, a fight over drugs spiraled into a fatal gunfight on the subdivision’s streets.

The neighborhood, nestled between Greenwell Springs Road and South Choctaw Drive, boasts 1,700 homes. Only 200 of those residences pay a neighborhood fee aimed at providing private security.

“It’s just hard to get people in the neighborhood to participate. They don’t have concerns until (crime) happens to them,” said Johnny Robertson, the neighborhood association’s president.

Robertson is slated to go before the State Bond Commission on Thursday for clearance on asking home owners to tack a crime prevention fee onto their yearly property tax bills.

The State Bond Commission largely exists to oversee state borrowing. The panel, chaired by the state treasurer, also looks at ballot language for local governmental units.

On Thursday, the commission will tackle issues important to residents in Central and in the Baton Rouge neighborhoods of Park Forest and Sherwood Forest. Central wants to extend an existing tax. Park Forest and Sherwood Forest want to collect fees for crime prevention and beautification efforts.

All of the issues would be decided by voters on Nov. 16.

For property owners in Park Forest and Sherwood Forest, the parcel fee for the new crime prevention and improvement districts would amount to $75 a year per parcel. The fee would last 10 years.

Robertson said the money would pay for security to patrol Park Forest eight hours a day. He said the patrols are needed because crime is growing.

State Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, sponsored the legislation that created the districts in Park Forest and Sherwood Forest. He said neighborhood associations need money for patrols and security cameras because voluntary dues are not yielding enough dollars.

“They were interested in, No. 1, keeping the neighborhood safe and protecting the property values of their homes,” James said.

Robertson blames the struggling economy for homeowners’ failure to pay their neighborhood dues. He said 300 homes, at the most, in Park Forest ever could be counted on to help with security costs. Now payments only come from 200 homes.

Gary Patureau, chairman of the new Sherwood Forest crime prevention district, said his neighborhood also struggles with collecting enough money for adequate security. He said voluntary contributions only allow for patrols three hours a day in the sprawling neighborhood, which is off Old Hammond Highway.

“We don’t have enough people that participate. We are looking forward to being able to provide more security coverage,” he said.

Approval by the bond commission is only one step in the process of making the fees mandatory. A majority of the registered voters in the districts also must approve the fees.

In addition to the crime districts, the bond commission will consider the Central Community School Board’s bid to extend, by five years, property taxes devoted to school construction at 23.65 mills. Voters would decide the issue in November.

Superintendent Michael Faulk said he is trying to make incremental changes to a growing school district. The election seeks to give Central permission to issue $13.1 million in borrowing against a tax that already is levied. The tax rate would not increase.

Faulk said he was uncertain what the tax rate means in dollars for the average homeowner in Central.

The borrowing would build a two-story academy for ninth-graders at Central High School, repair driveways, add lighting to allow for night-time softball and baseball games, and increase parking at an old school site for high school, middle school and youth football games as well as soccer matches. Currently, 300 ninth-graders attend class in temporary buildings.

“We hope that we have built trust with our voters. People in communities are always skeptical about public bodies and tax dollars ... We hope, and we believe, that we have spent the money like we said we were going to spend the money,” Faulk said.