Metro Council to seek AG’s opinion on annexation impact

Metro Council members are seeking an attorney general’s opinion on the impact the proposed annexation of the Mall of Louisiana and two hospitals would have on an effort to create a new city in East Baton Rouge Parish.

At issue is whether the petition for an election to incorporate St. George would be invalidated if the proposed boundaries are altered prior to an election.

The effort to annex the mall and hospitals into the city was the main topic discussed at a meeting organized by St. George supporters Tuesday night, attended by about 250 people.

“Literally everything they’ve done and what they’re doing is an attempt to keep this area from voting,” St. George leader Dustin Yates said. “We just want this to run its course without interference.”

Council members already are picking sides on the annexation proposal, based largely on their views in the battle to incorporate St. George.

Metro Councilman Buddy Amoroso, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said he wanted to stay neutral in the St. George debate, but the annexation petitions filed for the mall, Our Lady of the Lake Hospital and Baton Rouge General Medical Center have pushed him in favor of St. George.

“These efforts are sneaky and underhanded,” he said. “I cannot stand for it, and I won’t stand for it.”

St. George supporters say they fear the annexation would change the city boundaries, as defined in their petition, and thereby kill their effort.

Metro Council member Joel Boé, who wasn’t at the St. George event, said his vote on the annexation proposals hinges on the attorney general’s opinion. He said he would support the mall and hospitals’ annexation “in a heartbeat” if it doesn’t invalidate St. George’s petition, but has reservations if it does.

“The timing could not have been worse for this to happen,” Boé said. “For me, it boils down to trying to protect both sides’ legal rights.”

He described the annexation vote as having to choose between the property owners’ right to petition for annexation and the St. George movement’s right to petition for incorporation.

“Either way, one is going to feel disenfranchised,” he said. “It’s really a no-win situation here.”

Opponents of the incorporation effort say St. George’s creation will have a negative impact on Baton Rouge schools and city-parish finances. Baton Rouge General leaders cited St. George’s threat to Baton Rouge’s budget as their reason for seeking annexation.

Mayor-President Pro Tem Chandler Loupe said he won’t support the mall or hospital annexations primarily because of the potential impact on the St. George Fire Protection District through the loss of revenue from the mall’s property taxes.

But he said he’s also concerned about the effect on St. George’s incorporation attempt.

“Obviously, that would be another reason that I would probably not support it,” Loupe said.

Councilman Ryan Heck also has blasted the annexation attempt, writing in an open letter to city leaders that the St. George effort “cannot be stopped.”

Meanwhile, Councilman John Delgado, a frequent critic of St. George, has emerged as the most outspoken proponent of the annexation attempt.

Amoroso said he and Heck plan to stall the annexation petition on the council level. The attorney general’s opinion could take a couple of months to receive, and Boé said he doesn’t want to vote on the issue without it.

St. George supporters believe they will be safe if they get the required number of signatures in before the annexation is approved.

They need about 18,000 registered voters in the proposed city’s boundaries to sign on. They have declined in recent weeks to give the number collected so far, but organizer Joshua Hoffpauir said this week that, at the current rate, they expect to have the signatures needed in four to six weeks.

Yates downplayed the financial hit the proposed city’s budget would take if the city succeeds with the annexation effort and St. George loses sales tax revenues from the mall.

Organizers of the pro-St. George event Tuesday night repeatedly stressed the need for those attending to collect signatures. At the end of the meeting, several people huddled around clipboards to sign petitions.

St. George leader Norman Browning stressed that the effort’s focus remains on schools. St. George leaders previously lobbied the state Legislature for an independent school district for the area but were told they needed to form a city first.

Browning derided the East Baton Rouge Parish schools, saying “We can’t accept any more of ‘We’re making progress.’ We’ve given them 30 years of chances.”

“No longer should our young families, like my daughter’s, make the decision of paying private tuition or moving to surrounding parishes,” he said. “It’s unacceptable.”

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