Deferral on health district will allow time for public discussion on improving access across Baton Rouge, council members say

    Though she believes the Metro Council Zoning Commission will ultimately approve implementation of the master plan for the Baton Rouge Health District, Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis says the move by the commission on Wednesday to defer the issue for three months will allow time for important questions about the city-parish’s health care priorities to be vetted.

    “I just thought it was a good idea to slow it down and let those questions get answered,” says Collins-Lewis, who was among seven members who voted for the deferral.

    The 7-4 vote came after two hours of public comments and discussion on the proposed district in south Baton Rouge. Members of the public and representatives of several groups, including the Baton Rouge chapter of the NAACP, urged the council to oppose approving the plan until concrete steps are made to address the lack of health care access in north Baton Rouge—which has seen the closure of Earl K. Long Hospital and Baton Rouge General Mid City emergency room in recent years, as well as the move of Woman’s Hospital from its Airline Highway and Goodwood Boulevard location to farther south on Airline.

    Absent from Wednesday’s meeting were representatives from the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, which commissioned the master plan for the district and have been the driving force behind implementation. BRAF declined to comment on the deferral this morning or how it may impact its plans going forward.

    Collins-Lewis says there is not a clear understanding from the public on what the district is, adding the deferral will allow public officials time to further educate the public. Specifically, she says, everyone needs to understand that the district is not a tax incremental financing, or TIF, district and that taxes will not increase with implementation of the plan.

    Any proposal of a TIF within the health district—which the master plan does not necessarily exclude—would require additional approval.

    Councilwoman Tara Wicker says she supported the deferral because she wants to have a public conversation over the next 90 days on how Baton Rouge can holistically address health care access across the entire city-parish—not just in the north or south ends of the parish.

    “Last night was an attempt to be able to slow this down and have the conversation,” Wicker says. “At some point we will have to look above our silos.”

    Wicker says she wants to see if the proposed district can be expanded from its current boundaries in south Baton Rouge—perhaps along Florida Boulevard and Airline Highway—to expand health care offerings to underserved areas.

    Like Collins-Lewis, Wicker says she believes the health district plan implementation will eventually be approved. She says she and other council members, as well as legislators who represent north Baton Rouge, met with BRAF about the plan a few months ago to get clarity on the specifics. Wicker says the meeting was very good and very informative.

    But there are multiple groups, including Together Baton Rouge and another led by state Sen. Regina Barrow, focused on addressing the lack of health care options in north Baton Rouge, and Wicker wants those groups to get together and make sure all the bases are being covered and that no one is duplicating efforts.

    “There’s no reason why everybody should be working individually,” Wicker says.

    —Ryan Broussard