JR Ball: Government distrust in Baton Rouge is expensive

If we’ve learned anything from the fortnight debate over our unwillingness to support new taxes for road construction it’s this: An alarmingly high number of Baton Rouge residents have exactly zero trust in the people running our metropolitan form of government.

This contempt isn’t exclusively for the present day cast of characters, but extends to anyone who has sat in one of those seats since the turn of the century.

To be fair, the mistrust dates back further than that, but has zealously mushroomed with suburban population growth, the middle class’ increasing abhorrence of taxes and the widening belief that what we receive from government is out of whack from what we give. And then there’s the incessant drumbeat of local government being little more than a cesspool of wasteful spending.

Should those running our city-parish government be looking for a bright spot, here you go: The lack of love is no better at the state level. That, however, is a discussion for another day—though the end result is the same.

Yet here’s the irony of what our distrust has wrought in small-government-loving, tax-hating East Baton Rouge Parish: bigger government, far more inefficient spending and—you guessed it—higher taxes.

That’s not to say our mistrust isn’t misplaced. We have a nasty habit of electing a confederacy of dunces to the Metro Council, the group principally responsible for the spending of general fund dollars.

Our solution?

What we’ve done is create governments within the city-parish government, each operating—and taxing—independently and with no regard to the wants and needs of the other micro-governments.

Under the guise of greater taxpayer control over public-dollar spending, we went nuts creating something called dedicated taxing authorities, enabling what remains of the supposedly parishwide public school system, BREC and the library system to levy its own taxes and generally spend money as its respective management—non-elected in the case of BREC and the libraries—sees fit.

This, of course, has the added benefit of largely removing the mayor and council from the spending equation.

In short, what we’ve done is create governments within the city-parish government, each operating—and taxing—independently and with no regard to the wants and needs of the other micro-governments.

As now we’re taking it to the extreme. First, those harboring the delusion that a city designed exclusively for the use of single-vehicle drivers can—and should—have a first-rate, semi-parishwide bus system jammed through a dedicated taxing district for CATS. Then, a small group of north Baton Rouge political insiders played the “senior citizen” card in getting not one, but two free-flowing revenue streams for the woefully mismanaged Council on Aging, which isn’t even a government agency but, rather, an ineptly-run, nepotism-riddled nonprofit.

Moreover, voter mistrust is such that we prefer project-specific taxes, rather than those of the “use as see fit” variety, further limiting discretionary spending.

Ultimately, this creates a situation of “winners” and “losers” in local government since dedicated dollars can’t be reallocated to other projects or other local government agencies.

Much, for example, is made of the $66 million sitting in reserve with the library system, with some arguing a chunk of that money should be transferred to public works for road construction. That, however, is a legal no-no. Others will suggest those running our first-rate libraries should voluntarily agree to cut its dedicated property tax millage with the understanding taxpayers will then agree to pay more elsewhere, say for a project like Green Light II.

Good luck with that. And we seem to be OK with it, with voters recently giving the thumbs up to the library system effectively increasing its dedicated millage rate.

The surest bet in Baton Rouge politics is the renewal of an existing tax so it strains credulity to think voters will ever reject a tax renewal for, say, the library system to free up dollars to then approve a new tax for road construction. If we’ve learned nothing else from history it’s that no one willingly gives up turf—political, financial or whatever. Especially when each government fiefdom has its own army of citizen zealot defenders on call to plea the tax-necessity case.

This Russian-nesting-doll approach has left what passes for city-parish government remarkably handcuffed when it comes general fund spending flexibility.

This is not how a metropolitan form of government is supposed to work. In Nashville, a metropolitan early adopter that transitioned to it on a grander scale in 1963, the mayor and Metropolitan Council don’t tell agencies like the school system and parks department how to spend its money, but they have a huge say in how much money each receives.

And here’s something for those upset in the suburbs who want a second crack at creating the independent city of St. George: The beauty of the metropolitan form of government, say Nashville officials, is that this joint form of government is better equipped to handle surging suburban growth.

Baton Rouge, apparently, didn’t get the memo. And if we did, we ignored it.

How’s that working out?

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