JR Ball: BRAC’s selective ‘greater good’ love of Baton Rouge

In news shocking to exactly no one, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and its board of directors has decided an independent city of St. George should not be a thing.

The foundational reason for BRAC’s opposition stems from what’s said to be faulty and less than complete budget numbers put forth earlier by organizers of the St. George incorporation effort—echoing the previously spoken concern of Sharon Weston Broome, though it’s not entirely clear if she was speaking as the mayor of Baton Rouge, the president of East Baton Rouge Parish … or both.

Yet the BRAC board takes it a step further, tossing out a litany of wonkish numbers that essentially translates into skepticism that a St. George independent school district could successfully operate without a hike in property taxes. More troubling, says BRAC, is a projected school district budget doesn’t seem to exist—at least not one available for public viewing. Frankly, that’s a reasonable request, especially since the genesis of the entire St. George movement is the desire to break-free from the low-rated East Baton Rouge public school system.

That said, the issue isn’t what people are paying in school-related property taxes, but, rather, what they’re getting in return for those tax dollars. Residents and businesses in the incorporated cities of Central and Zachary pay a higher school tax millage rate than those within the East Baton Rouge district, yet no one in those top-rated school district hamlets seems to be complaining.

There was also the raising of red flags over such things as legacy costs and the funding of other services, but, in fairness, the handling of such things typically happens after a successful incorporation vote—and a likely lawsuit. Seriously, does anyone really believe the EBR school system or any other government agency is going to look at what St. George offers and declare, “That’s good my me.”

BRAC’s most interesting argument, however, focuses on the notion of “the greater good,” saying the creation of an independent city “would weaken and threaten the combined form of city-parish government.” It goes on to pontificate our cherished government setup works best—and most efficiently—when risk and costs are spread “across a larger population.”

A king named George made that same basic case to a bunch of independence-seeking, tax-hating rabble-rousers some 242 years ago. It didn’t go over well then and it’s not working any better now on those wanting a city named George.

Regardless, as one who’s a sucker for “the greater good argument,” I concede BRAC’s point.

Here’s my question, however: Why scream out about this with St. George while staying silent about the things already weakening this hallowed form of government?

You tell me, when’s the last time BRAC or its board took a position against the independent taxing authority enjoyed by BREC or the library system?

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These two entities operating independently—regardless of their importance or how well-run each might be—reduces government efficiency, limits fiscal flexibility and leads to higher overall taxes. (Aren’t we told such things hurt business and economic development efforts?)

Moreover, it dilutes the power and authority of those actually elected by voters, transferring such things to officials who don’t answer to the public for their jobs.

You can mention the taxing authority of the school system—and, technically, that too weakens the city-parish form of government—but at least its board is actually elected by voters.

Given this newfound love of city-parish maximization, perhaps BRAC can pick up the baton on the need to add at-large members to the Metro Council.

Extending something of an olive branch, BRAC claims to get the frustration parish residents feel toward the “management of the parish’s finances.”

Fabulous, so where’s the position paper on ways to address a looming local pension crisis that threatens within the next decade to gobble almost every available general fund dollar unless 1) investment returns skyrocket to astronomical highs or 2) there’s a massive parishwide tax hike?

How about a push for the Baton Rouge Checkbook, allowing the public a better chance to see what’s what with city-parish spending?

Here’s the bottom line: If it’s “the greater good” we’re after, then let’s relentlessly pursue it in all its forms. What BRAC—or anyone else—should not do is use it simply as a club to beat down the St. George movement. 

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