Mall of La., hospitals petitioning for annexation

Petitions from the Mall of Louisiana, Baton Rouge General Medical Center and Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center seeking annexation into the city of Baton Rouge could, if successful, invalidate efforts to incorporate St. George.

Supporters of the effort to create a new city in East Baton Rouge Parish say the proposed annexation of the mall and the hospitals would alter the area defined in their incorporation petition.

“It would change the boundaries of the city of St. George and immediately stop the process,” St. George spokesman Lionel Rainey said. “It would disenfranchise all the people who have already signed the (incorporation) petition.”

St. George supporters have been collecting signatures for several months in an effort to put incorporation to a vote. They need about 18,000 registered voters in the proposed city’s boundaries to sign on. The organizers have declined in recent weeks to give the number collected so far, but they claim to be on track to get the proposal on the Nov. 4 ballot.

Baton Rouge General Medical Center’s board members, in a statement on the hospital and mall’s joint petition for annexation, cited the potential deleterious economic impact St. George could have on Baton Rouge.

An economic impact study conducted by LSU researchers for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and Baton Rouge Area Foundation claims St. George would pull 40 percent of the sales tax revenue from the city-parish budget.

The annexation petitions, which were filed Friday, are expected to go before the Metro Council at its May 28 meeting. It’s unclear which direction council members will sway.

Some have expressed concern that annexation of the properties could hurt the St. George Fire Department, because it would lose revenue it collects through the mall’s property taxes.

The fire department, which is East Baton Rouge’s second largest and covers most of the proposed city of St. George, has a budget of about $17.1 million — about $15.1 million of which comes from property taxes. The Mall of Louisiana pays about $347,000 in property taxes to the St. George Fire Department, while the hospitals are exempt.

Only land adjacent to the city’s limits can be annexed, so the hospitals are needed to provide a path to incorporation for the mall.

Councilman John Delgado, an outspoken critic of the St. George effort, said he doesn’t see why the annexation attempts should fail. He deemed the mall and hospitals’ petitions as an issue of “self determination for the people who don’t want to be a part of St. George.”

“There is no excuse to deny any citizens’ desire to join the city of Baton Rouge,” he said. “I don’t believe the fire issue is a concern. That’s an excuse by people who don’t want to vote for annexation.”

Rainey said St. George supporters are pressing forward with signature collection efforts for the incorporation and believe they can thwart the annexation if they get enough signatures before its approval.

The annexation proposal is the latest hurdle to St. George’s incorporation. The state Legislature also is considering several bills this session that could impact the incorporation effort.

Rainey said the annexation attempt doesn’t come as a surprise but is disappointing.

“This would invalidate, very likely, the (St. George) petition and stop the process,” he said. “This is setting a very dangerous precedent.”

Other annexation proposals, including bringing L’Auberge Casino and an unincorporated part of LSU’s campus into Baton Rouge, also have been considered.

Baton Rouge attorney Yigal Bander agreed with St. George’s assessment that annexation, if approved, could invalidate the incorporation petition by redefining boundaries but said property owners have the legal right to seek annexation, despite its potential impact.

“It’s probably true that the annexation of these areas would practically and legally hinder the St. George incorporation efforts,” he said. “That’s not a reason not to grant someone’s petition to be annexed.”

Last month, the Metro Council approved a similar request from Celtic Studios, Costco and SAIF Credit Union to join the city of Baton Rouge, but Rainey said that move was anticipated, so those properties were never included in St. George’s proposed boundaries.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow our City Hall blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/ cityhallbuzz .