St. George backers not ready for Nov. vote

It’s looking less likely that voters will be considering a proposal to create the city of St. George in November.

Organizers have been working for more than a year to gather 18,000 signatures for a petition that gives voters living within the boundaries of the proposed new city the opportunity to decide whether they become St. George residents.

Leaders of the effort have long said their goal is to put the issue on the November or December ballot. To hold a November referendum would require the petition to be submitted by July 23.

St. George spokesman Lionel Rainey said that as of Tuesday — two weeks from the deadline — they did not have enough signatures for a November election day. He emphasized, however, that they are still aggressively pursuing their goals.

“We don’t have the signatures today, but we’re getting closer every day,” he said. “We’re still confident we’ll have either a November or December election.”

But Baton Rouge political watchers wondered if the failure of organizers to have the needed signatures in hand by now is reflective of the proposed city — a major topic during the recent legislative session and constant fixture in local news — losing some of its appeal. Pollster Bernie Pinsonat said if there were widespread support for St. George, organizers would have gotten the signatures by now.

“It’s not a good sign when you take so long to get the signatures,” said Pinsonat, who noted he isn’t working for either side. “It means there’s not a lot of interest in it other than the organizers. I don’t know if they’re not organized or they don’t have the money or whatever else, but it looks like not being able to get enough signatures will be their Achilles’ heel.”

John Couvillon, another Baton Rouge pollster who said he has done polling for both sides of the issue, agreed.

“Any time you have an issue that interests a great number of people, you should have people coming out of the woodwork to get signatures,” he said. “They still have time, but after November or December, they don’t have much of a chance from a perception standpoint.”

In order to get the issue on the December ballot, organizers will need to submit the petition in October.

Even as organizers continue to work on grassroots support, the still unformed city of St. George is also facing the incremental chipping away of its tax base in the form of annexations of property by the city of Baton Rouge from the currently unincorporated part of East Baton Rouge Parish.

The most recent potential annexation was revealed Tuesday, as the city released a petition by the owner of 630 acres of land along the Mississippi River to join Baton Rouge proper.

Land owner Charles Lambert, listed as director of Louisiana Riverboat Casinos Inc., filed the request earlier this month. The item will go before the Metro Council on July 23.

The property is a vacant plot of land, south of the Riverbend subdivision, a neighborhood by the river at the southern tip of the city. The assessed value of the property, according to the petition, is $51,950 — which is 10 percent of the property’s market value.

Baton Rouge officials have said the annexations demonstrate that some land owners are nervous about the uncertainty and potential increase in taxes of being in a new city.

But St. George organizers have accused Baton Rouge officials of pursuing targeted properties to protect key revenue sources, while also undermining the petition effort.

“The city-parish has attempted to undermine and derail this movement from the beginning, yet here we stand,” Rainey said. “We are resolute in our mission, and will stay the course.”

St. George supporters hope to create a new city as a means to an end to establish an independent school system, which has twice been killed by the state Legislature. Supporters have also complained about what they see as inadequate government investment in the southern end of the parish.

By petitioning to join the city of Baton Rouge, the property owners are opting to pay an additional 10.6 mills in property taxes for the Capital Area Transit System, a tax levied in the city limits.

The property owned by Lambert is located west of the L’Auberge Casino, another major revenue generator for the parish, and potentially for the city of St. George. Baton Rouge officials have previously said they had conversations with L’Auberge officials about the potential budgetary impacts of St. George. And many have speculated officials are trying to pave a clear path to annex the casino, which is not currently adjacent to the city limits. Only properties next to city boundaries can be annexed.

Brian Wilson, East Baton Rouge Parish assessor, said attorneys over the past couple weeks have been coming into his office to look at maps of properties in the area surrounding the L’Auberge. He wouldn’t identify the attorneys.

Even if Lambert’s land becomes part of Baton Rouge, that doesn’t create a direct connection to L’Auberge. There are eight parcels of land with mostly different owners that separate the two properties.

In February, LSU officials said they were entertaining talks with city officials to annex Ben Hur Farm and Innovation Park into the city, which would create a direct path to L’Auberge.

Rainey said it’s abundantly clear that Baton Rouge officials are trying to woo the casino, which accounts for about $7 million in revenue in the proposed St. George budget.

“This shouldn’t be spun as self determination or safe harbor,” Rainey said. “This is a purposeful attempt to annex a revenue center.”

Lambert could not be reached for comment. William Daniel, chief administrative officer for Mayor President Kip Holden, did not return phone calls.

Another subdivision of 35 houses on Legacy Court, off Coursey Boulevard, is also starting a petition for annexation.

On July 2, four homeowners on the street wrote the city requesting to initiate the process to annex their street. If successful, this would be the first neighborhood of homeowners, rather than business owners, attempting to leave St. George before it is even created.

Rose Marie Powell, one of the petitioners, said she’s a native of Baton Rouge and is concerned about the effort to create a new city.

“They’re taking away who we are, our identity, our culture, our history,” she said, adding that she doesn’t like the name of the proposed city. “I feel like it’s really going to destroy the city, the parish and I think it’s going to go on up to the state.”

Powell said she is afraid the new city is tearing the parish apart and turning neighbors against one another. She also said she’s OK paying additional taxes as a city resident because she’s more apprehensive of St. George’s unknown tax rate. The neighborhood petition would require a majority of the property owners on her street to agree to annexation.

In recent months, the city-parish has also recently annexed in Celtic Studios, Costco, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, Baton Rouge General Medical Center and the Mall of Louisiana.

However, Woody Jenkins, former legislator and newspaper owner, is challenging the annexations of Baton Rouge General and the mall because he claims the boundaries were unreasonably drawn and violated local and state procedures. That lawsuit is still pending at the 19th Judicial District Court.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter @rebekahallen. For coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhallbuzz/.