It didn’t really come as a surprise when, earlier this month, organizers of the St. George incorporation effort filed the necessary paperwork to launch a petition drive they hope will lead to the creation of an independent city and school district in a 60-square-mile section of unincorporated southeast East Baton Rouge Parish.
After a 2015 attempt to get the incorporation issue on the ballot fell short by just 71 votes, organizers of the movement vowed to try again. Now, nearly two and a half years after the proscribed two-year waiting period, they’re back and they’ve got several things working in their favor.
For one, they’ve eliminated some neighborhoods from their proposed city—Gardere for one—that didn’t strongly support the effort last time. In the process, they’ve shrunk the footprint by roughly 25 square miles and pared down the potential population from about 107,000 to a little more than 86,000. What remains is a more committed, solid voting bloc.
Second, they’ve had more than two years to learn from their mistakes and they’ve taken advantage of that time to make sure they don’t repeat them. This time, they’ll make sure only those who want to sign the petition—and are eligible, registered voters—will do so.
Third, moderate voters inside the City of Baton Rouge who opposed the issue or were on the fence three years ago seem more sympathetic with St. George supporters now. Some of those voters helped elect Mayor Sharon Weston Broome, but they’ve been disappointed by the new administration since it took office early last year, and continue to focus on its early missteps and lack of apparent progress. Last time around, this bloc actively opposed St. George. Now, they say things at the gym or the coffee shop like, “Well, you can’t really blame them.”
Finally, St. George organizers have produced a budget report showing the new city won’t raise taxes on residents and will, in fact, operate with a $24.4 million surplus its first year. The same report also suggests the incorporation won’t do as much damage to the finances of the City of Baton Rouge as has been projected.
Critics are challenging this assessment already, pointing out—correctly—that the budget does not factor in the costs of creating a new school district. But those arguments are not dissuading supporters, who have suggested that even if their taxes do go up it would be worth it just to get their money out of the coffers of Baton Rouge government.
While it’s too soon to say how the effort will turn out, it’s likely St. George organizers will collect their signatures, perhaps, even, in time to get the measure on a fall ballot. There’s very real concern about this possibility coming from a lot of quarters. But so far, the opposition is still assessing the situation and formulating its strategy.
Broome and East Baton Rouge Schools Superintendent Warren Drake both say they want to keep their nose to the grindstone and focus on bigger issues that concern the entire parish. Whether this proves effective remains to be seen.
What is certain is that the issue will be polarizing and further divide a community already at odds with itself.