East Baton RougeParish leaders debate St. George effort

Discussion intended to reflect on 2013

The effort to form a new city in southern East Baton Rouge Parish dominated a discussion among community leaders Tuesday, bringing St. George opponents and proponents to the same table to debate it.

The event, which was slated as a reflection on 2013 in Baton Rouge sponsored by radio station WJBO-AM 1150, brought together leaders from city-parish government, law enforcement, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, Visit Baton Rouge, and the St. George incorporation supporters.

While the St. George effort has only come into full swing in recent months, its leaders say they have more than half of the 18,000 signatures they need to get their proposal on a ballot for voters to decide.

There’s no deadline for collecting signatures.

At Tuesday’s panel, Norman Browning and Lionel Rainey, two of the most outspoken St. George advocates, went head-to-head with Metro Council members Tara Wicker and C. Denise Marcelle, debating the finer points of what the new city would mean for Baton Rouge and East Baton Rouge Parish.

A recent study by LSU economist Jim Richardson, paid for by BRAC and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, says the loss of sales tax revenue from the St. George area would leave the city-parish government with an annual budget shortfall of $53 million, though St. George supporters dispute that figure.

Marcelle, whose mother lives within the proposed St. George boundaries, said she sees the incorporation effort as an affront after years of city-parish government investment in the area.

“I believe that the mayor and the city of Baton Rouge and the chamber have done a great deal to promote the south part of Baton Rouge. We could have easily put the Mall of Louisiana over by Southern, but we didn’t,” she said. “If we have invested in the infrastructure and they’re living great out there, I don’t believe that’s the time you say, ‘Thank you for the infrastructure and the renaissance, but now we’ll take over.’ ”

Rainey and Browning stressed the incorporation is all about education.

The St. George effort sprang from the attempt to create a breakaway school district from East Baton Rouge Parish, after the state Legislature repeatedly killed the effort.

St. George leaders say they believe creating a city will give them additional leverage needed to receive state education funding if they can create their own school district.

“I can assure you that this didn’t start out as a group of people who said, ‘Let’s go create a new city,’ ” Rainey said. “Nobody wanted to go into this fighting to create a new city, but if that’s what it takes, then so be it.”

Rainey said he pictures St. George and Baton Rouge serving as “twin cities or sister cities.”

“I can’t see how that’s a negative for anybody,” he said.

An independent LSU poll released this week found registered voters surveyed within the proposed city’s boundaries are still split on the proposal. Browning and Rainey both said their main goal is to put incorporation to a vote and let the residents of the proposed city decide.

“This is literally democracy at its finest,” Rainey said.

Other topics the panel discussed included Baton Rouge crime, economic development, education and downtown growth.

Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. and District Attorney Hillar Moore III all stressed the need to use education as a tool to reduce crime.

“Our long-term goals are what’s going to define us,” Dabadie said. “I think we’re definitely moving in the right direction.”

Mayor-President Kip Holden didn’t attend Tuesday’s event, but he recorded two messages played for the panel that touted efforts to lure businesses to Baton Rouge and to curb crime.

Neither directly addressed St. George.