Regardless of how the St. George incorporation vote turns out, it’s been remarkably fascinating to witness so many people in East Baton Rouge Parish step out of the shadows and profess their love for the ideal known as “the greater good.”
No lie, it’s been a gobsmacking experience to see a place whose usual M.O. is a perverse devotion to parochialism rise up and embrace the notion of self-sacrifice for the betterment of all.
Yet that’s the exact drumbeat case being made by a chorus of Baton Rougeans who oppose some 86,000 unincorporated residents of the parish becoming some 86,000 incorporated residents of the parish. This choir of the better together would be fine if those residents were choosing to incorporate as part of the city of Baton Rouge; but doing so as the city of St. George is a crime against all things good government.
For those whose only interest in Baton Rouge is the fate of LSU’s football team, there’s an election happening right now in the southeast quadrant of our parish that, if successful, would—pending God knows how many lawsuits—create Louisiana’s fourth-largest city. St. George, on the population front, would be behind New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport and Lafayette, but would be roughly 7,000 residents larger than Lake Charles.
Again, if your primary concern is whether Ed Orgeron regularly self-haymakers his own jaw to motivate his purple and gold troops, the debate over St. George has been playing out for years but is fast approaching its denouement. (And, yes, former players swear Orgeron regularly punches himself in the face—and hard—to get the attention of his team.)
Most interesting in this St. George opera has been the 11th-hour emergence of some two dozen prominent business leaders who, in a hallelujah moment of greater good clarity, joined hands to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony while declaring their opposition to largely middle-class residents forming their own city.
It was an A-list gathering of the business elite. People who matter in this “who you know” town. People like John Engquist, Sean Reilly, Donna Saurage, Richard Lipsey, Shawn Usher and—in absentia—Jim Bernhard and Mike Wampold.
These folks—and others whose names aren’t as well-known but the organizations they represent are, like ExxonMobil, Our Lady of the Lake and BRAC—came together to preach the sermon that creating St. George will 1) likely tear apart our city-parish style of government, 2) create an additional layer of government, 3) lead to higher taxes in St. George, 4) lead to higher taxes in Baton Rouge, 4) financially crush already underperforming East Baton Rouge public schools, and 5) not come close to resolving the many problems—financial and otherwise—facing the parish.
In short: St. George is bad business and as a matter of fiscal policy violates the conservative’s credo.
“Great cities don’t splinter,” said Reilly, CEO of Lamar, one Louisiana’s largest publicly-traded companies and the largest outdoor media company in the world. “They don’t breakaway. Great cities have actually grown together and annexed together and that is just a historical fact.”
If nothing else, urged Saurage, do it—or don’t do it in this case—for the kids.
In theory, they are right. A truly metropolitan form of government is a far more fiscally efficient government setup compared to a hodgepodge collection of city municipalities and government agencies loosely cobbled together in the guise of a parish government. And, yes, higher taxes somewhere will be the result—as will the eventual creation of a Baton Rouge-only city government—if St. George passes and we’re left with a parish government held together by little more than a sewer system, a roads tax program and duct tape.
For the record, those most zealous about forming this new city say none of that will happen. Certainly, they vow, taxes in St. George won’t increase on their watch and the predicted post-incorporation apocalyptic ramifications on city-parish government—since St. George residents will continue paying their “fair” share—is much ado about nothing.
Regardless, since when did anyone but a silent few in this parish ever give a dang about the greater good?
By my count, exactly zero of the well-meaning business leaders decrying St. George have uttered word one of greater good complaint about the independent taxing authority enjoyed by the school system, BREC, the library system, CATS or the nongovernmental Council on Aging. Talk about additional layers of government.
Love what these groups do all you want, but there’s no denying their taxpayer-approved hoarding of public dollars has led to higher taxes and, yes, more inefficient government.
As for those who argue giving BREC, the library system and CATS independent taxing authority was necessary to overcome the craziness of the Metro Council, then I say welcome to the St. George argument.
Speaking of higher taxes, when’s the last time you heard anyone from this gathering of the greater good stand up and demand that our tax assessor actually do his job by accurately assessing every piece of commercial and residential property in this parish? How many of these folks—and their companies—do you think have property assessments that come close to matching actual value?
I’ve checked, and the answer is not many—if any.
Truth is, when a $4 million piece of property is assessed at just $2.5 million, it results in government requesting a higher millage to get the cash it needs to operate. Multiply that by the belief that assessments in this parish are off by some 30% overall—and as much as 40% amongst the wealthier homesteads—and you’re talking some serious money.
Is that embracing the greater good?
Many in the business community—with BRAC as a cheerleader—worry the potential loss of St. George property tax dollars will have a devastating impact on the parish public school system, yet they aren’t worried about that same impact when it comes to ITEP. In fact, BRAC, ExxonMobil and pretty much every business group under the Louisiana sun went into a conniption earlier this year when the school board had the audacity to reject two ITEP proposals from ExxonMobil. So egregious was this sin that Mayor Sharon Weston Broome herself had to call a press conference to proclaim her love for all things ExxonMobil.
Is that embracing the greater good?
For the record, ITEP is a wonderful and, under our current convoluted tax structure, necessary program. Hand the thing out like candy if officials want, but only with the caveat of exempting education-related taxes.
Anyone remember this august group rising in protest over a group of north Baton Rouge community leaders and residents wanting to form a city council separate from our greater good metropolitan form of government?
Some might argue the greater good only seems to matter when it’s the middle class doing the parochialism. In any event, this much is certain: The greater good only matters when it matters—and applies—to everyone.