WHEN THE BATON ROUGE Metro Council voted 9-3 to approve the annexation of the Mall of Louisiana and two major hospitals into Baton Rouge earlier this month, some people said it was a big blow to the effort to incorporate the proposed City of St. George.
It is an effort that supporters said would improve education and create an independent school district. Opponents said it would pose an economic threat to the parish and some even have called it white flight.
By definition, white flight, a term first used in 1967, is the departure of whites from places (urban neighborhoods or schools) increasingly or predominantly populated by minorities.
Nestled in East Baton Rouge Parish, the proposed city is more than 84 square miles and has a population of more than 107,000 people. If supporters have their way, it will become the fifth largest incorporated city in the state.
“This started about and continues to be about public education,” said Lionel Rainey III, spokesperson for the incorporation effort.
Rainey said that six out of 10 schools in the East Baton Rouge Parish School System are failing. He called the school system one of the worst in the state and coun- try. He cited hundreds of students arrested within a school year.
“It’s just a failed school system,” said Rainey, who added that the system is being investigated for a major grade changing scandal.
He stressed that the incorporation effort is not white flight and not about race at all.
“It’s got nothing to do with skin color. Those who have the ability to leave are leaving – it’s middle class flight,” Rainey said. “The first thing I say is who are we breaking away from? This area is not a part of Baton Rouge. That’s rheto- ric used by someone who doesn’t know what’s hap- pening.”
Residents Against the Breakaway, or Better Together, created by East Baton Rouge Parish residents against the incorporation, said online that the best way to solve the problem is by working together, not separating.
This group said in a media release that 7,000 students would be displaced by the incorporation by be- ing forcibly displaced from their schools and that the new school district would create a major school capacity crisis for southeast residents.
But Rainey said it’s just not true. He said students could go to the schools that will be built in the city of St. George, a school system that will be designed by the person who designed the gifted and talented program for East Baton Rouge Parish schools.
“I don’t think that tens of thousands of students should suffer so you can have a great magnet school,” he said.
District 7 Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle has been vocal about her opposition of the incorporation of St. George, citing it would hurt the city of Baton Rouge financially.
“This is just a bad deal for Baton Rouge,” she said.
Marcelle, whose mother lives in the St. George area, said the city has invested $300 million of infrastruc- ture out in that area. She added that it would be un- fair to receive and benefit from the improvements and then decide to break away.
“When my mom moved out there, none of that was there,” she added as she talked about how the city has widened and improved streets in that area to enhance the city as a whole.
Marcelle said that the fire and police department would suffer greatly along with the city from this incorporation. She also said that it would add more leaders, something that the parish does not need.
“Duplication of government doesn’t make us stronger,” she continued.
Marcelle said the council voting in favor of annexing the Mall of Louisiana, Our Lady of the Lake Hos- pital and Baton Rouge General Medical Center’s Bluebonnet Campus opens the doors for other businesses to come in as well.
She said she expects LSU to come in automatically because part of their campus would be in St. George and the other in Baton Rouge with the new city’s borders. She also expects businesses such as L’Auberge Casino and Perkins Rowe to want to be annexed into Baton Rouge because of not wanting to go with the unknown. She said that if the city is incor- porated it could levy a tax as a new city to help build schools, city hall and pay the salaries of a mayor and council members.
“I think they [St. George incorporation organizers] acted prematurely because they didn’t talk to these businesses. You should have them on board beforehand,” she said. “Perhaps they would have had a better outcome.”
An LSU analysis of the economic impact of the in- corporation, jointly com- missioned by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and the Baton Rouge Area Foun- dation, was published in December. It revealed that the incorporation would lead to significant reductions in public services, particularly police protection.
The analysis, which was conducted pre Mall of Loui- siana annexation, stated that this effort would take $85 million, or 30 percent, from the East Baton Rouge Parish General Fund, which is mainly supported by sales taxes. Even with the mall out of the equation, there are still major sales tax gen- erators that contribute to this number.
The study also showed that the incorporation would threaten economic development and job creation ef- forts due to fractured and duplicative regulatory and permitting processes and the interjection of sales tax competition between two cities currently considered one community.
The study revealed that this effort would jeopardize retirement and post-employment benefit costs, unless the new city shares in legacy costs, which is an obligation of all taxpayers in East Baton Rouge Parish.
Another issue highlighted is that the new city would cut funding for the EBRPSS even more than the break away district proposed in 2012 and 2013, mainly be- cause the proposed city has a larger geographic area with major destination retailers that produce sales taxes from people all over the parish.
Supporters of this effort are still working to gather enough signatures to put the incorporation on the ballot for the Nov. election.
Under the Lawrason Act, a petition must be cir- culated and signed by 25 percent of all registered voters located within the proposed new city before it can be submitted to the Registrar of Voters for cer- tification and ultimately the Governor, who will place the issue to be voted upon by proposed residents.
Rainey would not release the number of petition signatures obtained but did say that they are well on their way of having the number needed to place this issue up for vote. He said he’s confident the sig- natures would be obtained by the deadline.
Better Together has launched a signature removal campaign in addition to a petition of its own opposing the St. George incorporation.
Marcelle, who started an effort years ago to annex several of the surrounding areas, said she looks forward to annexing other incorporated areas of Baton Rouge in the near future.
“It should be what can we do better to make the city better, not what divisive can we do,” Marcelle said.
By ANASTASIA SEMIEN