In the wake of the St. George incorporation vote, Baton Rouge grapples with where to go
from here and whether its city-parish
government is forever broken.
Though many saw it coming, there was something of a collective pause on the morning of Sunday, Oct. 13, when Baton Rouge woke up, fresh off the LSU Tigers’ momentous victory over Florida, and realized that after all the talk, social media rancor and flurry of campaign activity, the effort to incorporate the city of St. George had been approved by voters in the proposed municipality by a solid 54%-46%.
For better or worse, the city of St. George—a 60-square-mile area carved out from a mostly white, middle-class and affluent part of unincorporated East Baton Rouge Parish—was no longer a threat or a promise but a reality.
However one felt about St. George, there was something stunning about that realization. And as divided as the parish was on the issue, there was something about the outcome of the St. George vote on which everyone, paradoxically, could agree: Baton Rouge would never be the same.
There was no reason for the election results to have come as a shock. Polls that no one would admit to having done or share publicly had given St. George the edge for months, according to those who saw the numbers. And why not? After the first failed effort in 2015, organizers had learned from their mistakes, redrawn the boundaries of their proposed city to eliminate neighborhoods that didn’t support it, and made sure they literally dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s on their petition.
They also shrewdly honed their message, talking less about creating a new independent school district and more about the inefficiencies of City Hall.
It didn’t hurt that in the four-year interim, Donald Trump had become president, Sharon Weston Broome had become mayor and the world had embraced a neotribalism that gave power and voice to separatist movements like St. George.
Still, the city-parish administration seemed caught off guard in the early days following the vote. High-ranking officials were struggling to answer the myriad questions in the St. George aftermath: what the legal strategy would be to fight incorporation; how city-parish department heads would cope with the financial hit from the loss of St. George tax dollars; and whether neighborhoods that want to opt out of the new city can be quickly annexed into Baton Rouge?
Each is an important and intriguing question. But the vote raised bigger issues as well that get to the heart of how Baton Rouge government is structured and whether its consolidated form of city-parish government can—and, indeed, should—survive, provided the incorporation withstands expected court challenges.
Established in the late 1940s and refined in the early 1980s, the consolidated form of government, with its mayor-president and Metropolitan Council, was a key factor in the parish’s growth during the latter half of the 20th century. It enabled economies of scale and empowered elected officials to make spending decisions based on what was best for the rapidly growing parish, not just the particular pockets where tax dollars were generated.
With potentially five cities in the parish, however, it isn’t at all clear whether consolidation can still work or even makes sense in the new world long run.
Also unclear is how the parish heals and moves forward, especially as the months and years to come likely will be marred by litigation over St. George. In a statement three days after the vote, Broome struck an emboldened tone, saying she’d met with attorneys and advisors to explore legal options and was determined to “find a path forward that was best for ALL the citizens of the parish, not a portion of our population.”
They weren’t exactly fighting words, but they weren’t conciliatory, either, suggesting the path forward, wherever it takes the parish, won’t be a smooth one.
Frenzy and concern
In the wake of the vote, an analysis of the map by precincts confirmed what anecdotal evidence had suggested for months: St. George was more popular on the eastern side of the proposed city, in solidly conservative middle-class neighborhoods like Shenandoah. For many there, the issue was about better public schools. Yet for others, the driving force had become less about the promise of an independent school district and more about the desire for greater control over the spending of local tax dollars.
In neighborhoods to the west, where voters are older, more affluent and perhaps more invested in a strong city-parish government, there was higher skepticism. A majority of voters there either didn’t think St. George officials could deliver on their promises, or they simply believed carving out a fifth city in the parish—especially one that would become the state’s fifth-largest—wasn’t in the best long-term interest of the larger community.
Before the results of the Oct. 12 vote had even been certified by local election officials, at least six neighborhoods in those western St. George precincts began circulating petitions, trying to collect enough signatures to submit to the Metro Council a request for annexation into the city of Baton Rouge.
“Some 46 percent of voters in the St. George area opposed incorporation,” says M.E. Cormier, organizers of the opposition group One Baton Rouge. “That is not insignificant. Those particular neighborhoods and precincts want to be one Baton Rouge.”
The effort had potentially troubling implications for the map of St. George. If areas in St. George opted out, would adjacent neighborhoods that no longer bounded the new city also have to depart since there would no longer be a direct connection?
The issue also set up conflicts with the potential to literally pit neighbor against neighbor. An annexation petition requires the signatures of a simple majority of residents in a given area—50% plus one. In some neighborhoods along the boundaries of the new St. George, pro- and anti-St. George yard signs line the same suburban street in seemingly equal numbers. What would those subdivisions do?
At the same time, St. George organizers said they were hearing from communities adjacent to their new city limits on the outside, asking to be annexed in—not that St. George has any legal authority to do anything yet. Still, the activity hinted at a level of frenzy and concern brewing at the grass roots level throughout the parish.
Meanwhile, officials at City Hall were trying to wrap their heads around what a St. George departure would mean to the 2020 city-parish budget, a draft of which was finalized by the finance department just days before the election. The budget has to go to the Metro Council by Nov. 5 for approval in December, and Chief Administrative Office Darryl Gissel said it was too late to factor in the potential loss of revenues from a St. George incorporation. This despite the fact the administration had lobbied the governor to call the St. George vote for October.
Earlier in the year, the city-parish released an estimate showing that in order to handle the nearly $50 million reduction to the $322 million general fund budget, departments would have to be slashed anywhere from 18% to 45%, depending on whether one includes dollars that fund police and fire protection. It wasn’t pretty, and at the time, Broome said it would “have a devastating effect on remaining residents of the city-parish.”
But how deep the cuts would go depended on which city-
parish services St. George hoped to keep and how much it would offer to reimburse the city for them. They were just some of the many financial questions about sharing costs, and dividing assets and liabilities that the two sides would have to negotiate.
An initial meeting set, at the request of St. George organizers, for Oct. 18, was pushed back until Oct. 23 by Broome, citing a scheduling conflict. But she also put St. George organizers on notice that they better have their wish list and budget plan ready if they want to engage the city-parish in serious financial talks.
As of press time, however, it’s unclear how much meaningful negotiation, if any, there will be in the near future. A legal challenge, in the preliminary planning for months, is beginning to take shape, with several attorneys on board to fight the effort and several business leaders saying they’ll donate money to help cover the legal costs.
Veteran litigator Mary Olive Pierson, who served as CAO for a time in the 1980s and masterminded the annexations in 2015 that helped defeat the first incorporation effort, has been working pro bono and is leading the
effort. She won’t discuss her strategy, what the team is planning to file or when. But based on previous conversations with her and other lawyers familiar with the situation, there will likely be challenges on two fronts.
One will be in federal court, challenging the constitutionality of the incorporation vote on 14th Amendment grounds, since the entire parish didn’t have the right to vote on an issue that, arguably, will negatively impact the entire parish. The current state law says that only voters within the proposed city boundaries are eligible to vote on incorporation. State Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb did propose a carefully worded bill in the Legislature earlier this year that would apply only to East Baton Rouge Parish and, had it been enacted, would have required parishwide approval on St. George incorporation.
The other will be a challenge in state court, based on a state law that allows anyone living in the proposed municipality to challenge the incorporation on the basis of whether it will be able to provide the public services promised in “a reasonable period of time.” Key to the law is a provision that says, “In determining whether the incorporation is reasonable, the court shall consider the possible adverse effects the incorporation may have on other municipalities in the vicinity.”
St. George attorney and spokesman Drew Murrell acknowledged concern over the possibility of lengthy and costly legal battles, even as he suggested prolonged litigation would only further the schism in the parish.
“We’ve become a fractured and divided community and it is time for us to begin the healing process,” he said in his first official press conference. “We feel litigation will further that divide and further fracture our community.”
The heart of the issue
Aside from the nuts and bolts of boundary lines and budgets and lawsuits, there’s a larger issue that gets to the heart of what St. George is really about, namely, whether Baton Rouge’s consolidated form of city-parish government is still the best way to govern a sprawling, fractured community.
It is ironic to be pondering the question at this juncture, as it was the residents of suburban and outlying communities that pushed for the creation of consolidated government back in the post-war boom years of the late 1940s. They needed Baton Rouge city government to provide better services, build roads, provide sewerage and drainage—things their rural, police jury form of government couldn’t effectively or efficiently do—so the city expanded its boundaries and became a consolidated city-parish government.
Years later, the Baton Rouge City Council and the East Baton Rouge Parish Council merged to become a Metropolitan Council with 12 members representing the entire parish—including the independent rural cities of Baker and Zachary.
“The strength and the efficiencies were obvious,” says Tom Ed McHugh, who was a member of the parish council when it merged with the city council and went on to serve as mayor president from 1989-2000. “For many years, it worked very well.”
There are a few reasons for this. The consolidated government eliminated duplication of services—there aren’t two finance departments, two planning offices, two DPWs—thereby increasing efficiency. It created economies of scales, which, drives down costs. It also, in theory at least, enabled elected officials to make better spending decisions, with an eye towards what is best for the entire parish and where the needs are greatest.
The infrastructure that runs through much of St. George was developed over the past three decades under the consolidated government, using city-parish funds that were generated in commercial areas that are no longer viable as they once were.
But times have changed, and as the parish has grown, those in the now robust, middle class and affluent areas—away from the lower-income areas of the inner city—have seen their tax dollars go to programs in the city, allocated by leaders they clearly don’t trust, which is a big part of what the St. George incorporation is all about.
Metro Council member Dwight Hudson, whose district lies largely inside the boundaries of St. George, sees consolidation as a negative for those very reasons: Revenues are pooled and spent where a majority of the council decides they’re best spent.
“You’re taking revenues from one part of the parish and sending them elsewhere, to things they shouldn’t be responsible for,” Hudson says.
Conversely, if East Baton Rouge Parish becomes home to five cities, including an 86,000-resident St. George—how does the Metro Council make spending decisions that are in the best interest of the city of Baton Rouge? Who, at that point, is looking out for the best interests of the largest city in the parish?
“The more you subdivide it, the more difficult it is to make it work efficiently and to the benefit of everybody,” McHugh says. “At some point, it is going to make the consolidated form of government more difficult to manage.”
St. George’s Murrell says “it doesn’t matter to us either way” if a consolidated form of government survives—a clear signal of just how deep the desire for small, decentralized government is in suburban parts of the parish.
“It seems like consolidation is no longer really effective and that city-parish government is struggling to stay afloat,” he says. “Lafayette is moving to deconsolidate so Baton Rouge is really the last one. It doesn’t really work anymore.”
But Cormier, who has said she will be a named plaintiff in a lawsuit, is fighting against incorporation because she believes that losing the economies of scale that come with consolidation will cause the tax burden of everyone in the parish to go up.
“If the consolidated form of government is no longer relevant, we will all feel tax increases and inefficiency of services,” she says. “There will be a ripple effect and I’m not willing for my family to suffer that.”
So how does Baton Rouge move forward? How do city-parish leaders fight incorporation, on one hand, while trying to build proverbial bridges with those who are more determined than ever—now that they’ve had a successful vote—to move forward with establishing St. George and setting up its new government?
Moreover, what does it mean for business and economic development? Like so much of the parish, the business community is divided on the issue. Some—like H&E’s John Engquist—
oppose incorporation and are putting up money to help fund the lawsuits against it; others, like Performance Contractor’s Art Farve, helped bankroll the campaign that led to the successful incorporation vote.
The Baton Rouge Area Chamber, meanwhile, has chosen not to remain in the fray, declaring it’s time to move on. In a statement the day after the vote, BRAC said it “ … recognizes and respects” the will of the voters of St. George and urged everyone to work together and “come together to determine a path forward.”
St. George organizers argue they can be the rising tide that lifts all ships, that their suburban hamlet will attract young families and new businesses that will buoy the fortunes of the parish. It’s a plausible argument, but what will be the financial impact on Baton Rouge and the rest of the parish?
It may well take years—if not decades—to learn the answer. If history is any indication—think back to the 30-year school desegregation lawsuit—Baton Rouge is in for a long, legal battle. And what then? Even if consolidated government survives, can a fractured Metro Council still work together? Will the young families in St. George stick it out or leave?
“If there is a long and bitter fight, the exodus from Baton Rouge will continue,” predicts publisher Woody Jenkins, who has been a supporter of the St. George movement. “People will continue to leave Baton Rouge for better schools and better government in Ascension (Parish) and Texas, and Baton Rouge will continue to deteriorate.”