The political season is officially upon us, and East Baton Rouge Parish is just six or so weeks from one of the most significant elections in its history: the vote to incorporate an independent City of St. George from a 60-square-mile area in the unincorporated southeast portion of the parish.
Granted, only registered voters within the proposed footprint of the city will be able to cast a ballot, thanks to legislative action earlier this year that prevented a parishwide vote on the issue.
Still, there appears to be little interest, outside of the St. George Facebook page, about something that will have fundamental implications for the future of the parish, wherever you live.
With the clock ticking and the measure’s chances for passage looking good, those both for and against incorporation should start delving a little deeper into how this new city—which would be the fifth largest in Louisiana—will actually work and how, exactly, it will be funded
Take law enforcement. St. George organizers have said the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office will continue to provide police protection to the St. George area, much as it does now. Sounds simple, right? It’s not. Here’s why.
About two-thirds of the EBRSO’s $90.7 million operating budget—$65 million to be exact—is funded by a parishwide millage that goes to support not only patrols in unincorporated parts of EBR, like St. George, but parishwide operations that include a central dispatch system, infrastructure and equipment, a property tax division, court system support services and a jail.
Property taxes from the St. George area generate about $13.6 million of that $60 million. The rest comes from elsewhere in the parish. But here’s the thing: Residents of the cities of Baton Rouge, Baker and Zachary also pay millions of dollars a year in additional property taxes to support their own police departments because, not incidentally, state law requires municipalities to have their own police departments.
Why should St. George be entitled to use the services of the EBRSO as its municipal law enforcement agency and only have to pay once, when the other cities in the parish are paying twice?
St. George organizers say they will be paying more than just the $13.6 million in property taxes. A line item in their proposed budget allocates $4 million for “additional police protection (to be negotiated with the sheriff.)”
But how much will $17.6 million get them? A quick look at other Louisiana cities suggests, perhaps, not as much as they need or want. Lake Charles, which has a population of 75,000 compared to the 86,000 that would live in St. George, spends more than $20.2 million on its police department. Alexandria, with a population of just 47,300, spends $15 million—nearly as much as would St. George.
Viewed another way, the EBRSO responded to more than 86,000 calls for service in 2018, according to its website. Of those, one-third came from the Kleinpeter substation in St. George. If you divide the EBRSO’s $90 million budget by one-third, you get $30 million, not $17.6 million. Shouldn’t that be the real cost of law enforcement in St. George?
Perhaps, and St. George officials have said they haven’t worked out all the details yet so it’s possible their numbers are overly optimistic. Indeed Sheriff Sid Gautreaux says he hasn’t talked numbers with organizers of the effort in more than three years. But if that’s the case, why doesn’t the city’s proposed budget reflect this?
In short, because St. George has said it wants to do what Central does. This is the real heart of the problem because since shortly after its incorporation in 2005, Central has essentially gotten police protection from the EBRSO at a cost that is heavily subsidized by all taxpayers of the parish.
The deal dates back to a five-year arrangement between Central and then-Sheriff Elmer Litchfield, who agreed that deputies assigned to the Central area would continue providing services to the new city, just as they always had.
When Gautreaux took office, the deal had two years left. He agreed to honor it and says he has continued to ever since.
But, and here’s the catch, certain additional patrols in Central are provided by off-duty EBRSO deputies, who are treated as contract, 1099 employees. In other words, the EBRSO is not getting compensated for the services its deputies are providing. The deputies are getting paid directly.
But the wear and tear on their patrol cars, the gas, their weapons, the hidden costs of that police protection is being subsidized by taxpayers parishwide, not Central alone, which is reaping the benefits.
Gautreaux acknowledges Central has been getting something of a sweet deal. As for the fact that the parish’s other three cities are taxed to fund both the EBRSO and their own police departments, while Central isn’t, he acknowledges there’s a potential equity issue.
“I understand the problem some people have with the arrangement,” he says. “In some sense, the argument (that it’s not fair) is true.”
Gautreaux says he has told St. George leaders if they want additional police protection beyond what the area is already getting they’ll have to pay extra for it—and he hasn’t said how much. This, he acknowledges, will require changing things up in Central.
“I’ve already told Central, ‘I’m not charging y’all but I will have to charge them,” he says. “So at some point, we’re going to have to figure it out.”
These are the kinds of details that ought to be figured out—and known by all—before the election, not after.