In what began as a push to set up an independent public school district, the Village St. George community in Louisiana has now gathered almost half the signatures necessary to become its own city. The southern unincorporated portion of East Baton Rouge Parish is petitioning its 107,262 residents to form a local governing body, potentially creating Louisiana’s fifth largest municipality.
“First and foremost, people want better schools, but what they recognize is that we can have a great city as well,” Norman Browning, one of the incorporation campaign organizers, told The Advocate.
But the campaign has not met with universal support. It taps into longstanding divisions of class and race. East Baton Rouge Parish is also home to the state's second largest city and capital, Baton Rouge. Many people are suggesting that the real goal of incorporation supporters is to put some distance between the better-off, mainly white, suburban St. George and the financially struggling, mainly black, urban Baton Rouge.
“Some of these supporters of this effort to incorporate St. George and create a school district, they have the temerity to say with a straight face that this has nothing to do with race,” Albert Samuels, an associate professor of political science at Southern University, told the Times-Picayune. “But they’re acting as if the previous 50 or 60 years of history in this town have absolutely no consequence for where we stand now.”
St. George citizens have repeatedly attempted to set up their own public school district, but have been rejected by the Louisiana Legislature because they live in an unincorporated area. According to the incorporation campaign’s website, “The character of the opposition to that effort set in motion a larger discussion among grassroots citizens dissatisfied by the quality of governance from the Powers That Be in East Baton Rouge Parish."
The governance of East Baton Rouge Parish is certainly a complicated structure.
The city of Baton Rouge and East Baton Rouge Parish share a consolidated government with a joint city-parish legislative body, the Metropolitan Council. Melvin Lee "Kip" Holden (D) is the mayor-president, serving as both the mayor of Baton Rouge and the president of the parish council.
Residents of the unincorporated areas provide substantial tax revenues to the East Baton Rouge Parish General Fund, which helps fund public services for all parish residents. In particular, two of the largest sources of tax revenue in the state -- the commercial areas of Perkins Rowe and the Mall of Louisiana -- are located within the boundaries of the proposed new city of St. George. If St. George breaks away, the East Baton Rouge Parish General Fund would collect roughly $85 million less, hurting funding for police, special education and child welfare programs.
Some opponents of the St. George petition have pointed to the demographic aspects of this effort. The new city would be “approximately 70 percent White, 23 percent Black, and 4 percent Asian, compared to the City of Baton Rouge which is a majority-minority city with a population that is 55 percent Black, 40 percent White, and 3 percent Asian,” according to a Dec. 1 report by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, neither of which has taken an official position on the issue.
The division between the two areas may have been exacerbated by Hurricane Katrina. After the hurricane hit, East Baton Rouge Parish accepted more than 200,000 displaced New Orleans residents, the majority of whom were black and settled in the more northern, urban regions.
The Dec. 1 report also points out the significant income gap between the two populations, concluding that a new city of St. George would be one of the wealthiest in Louisiana:
Perhaps the most notable difference between the two cities is found in the household income characteristics. The proposed city has a mean household income $30,000 higher than the City of Baton Rouge. More than 60 percent of the households in Baton Rouge have incomes below $50,000, while more than 60 percent of the households in the new city have incomes above $50,000 ... [M]ore than 14,000 households in the City of Baton Rouge receiv[e] SNAP benefits compared to fewer than 3,000 in the proposed new city. One quarter of the households in Baton Rouge receive some kind of Social Security income, while in the proposed city that ratio is one in ﬁve.
According to the Times-Picayune, Louisiana state Sen. Mack “Bodi” White (R) told the Baton Rouge Press Club last week, "Some people say it's just white flight. It's not true. It's middle-class and upper-middle-class flight, is what it is."
Among the potentially adverse effects of St. George's incorporation, the Dec. 1 report -- which was authored by Louisiana State University professors James Richardson, Jared Llorens and Roy Heidelberg -- suggests “significant reductions in public services,” threats to local job creation efforts and a destabilized plan of government.
The day the report was released, the official St. George Facebook page posted, “Once we fully evaluate the study, we will release a statement ... At some point you have to stop doing studies and start taking action.”
Mayor-President Holden described the group’s efforts as divisive and ultimately fruitless.
“It’s a small group of people who seem like their mission is to try to separate the people and communities of this parish in any way they possibly can,” Holden said, according to WBRZ. "Kind of amazing that after we go in and make all of these improvements and bring Baton Rouge up to greater standards, somebody would choose to try to separate us. This will be a failed movement. This is something that will not work."
Metropolitan Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle also expressed disappointment.
“If they pull away from Baton Rouge, it will affect everyone,” Marcelle told The Morning Advocate. “We’ve spent millions of dollars on improvements out there and making traffic better, and now they want to be their own city?”
Under state law, a petition to incorporate must garner the signatures of 25 percent of registered voters within the boundaries of the proposed municipality and then be submitted to the Registrar of Voters for certification. Upon certification, the petition is submitted to the governor, who must call a special election in which only registered voters within the proposed boundaries are eligible to vote. A simple majority in favor of the proposition results in a new city.
The proposed boundaries for the city of St. George would cover about 85 square miles, including all of the unincorporated part of the parish south of Baton Rouge.