After months of name-calling from both sides in the increasingly acrimonious debate over a proposal to incorporate the new city of St. George, Baton Rouge officials are moving beyond the rhetoric and going after the money.
The Metro Council will consider approving a petition Wednesday from the Mall of Louisiana to join the city of Baton Rouge, which would secure for the city sales tax revenue generated by the shopping center.
The council also will vote on whether to annex Baton Rouge General Medical Center and Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center. Both have to be annexed to connect the existing city limits to the mall because only property contiguous to the city limits can be annexed.
The impact is three-fold for the proposed St. George.
The Mall of Louisiana is a major sales tax generator in the parish that was being factored into the proposed city’s budget.
Similarly, St. George supporters have raised concerns that the mall’s annexation would cut deeply into the St. George Fire Protection District budget, which would presumably lose the property taxes from the retail campus.
The most immediate concern as of late is whether changing the proposed boundaries of St. George this late in the game would invalidate the incorporation petition.
“They could easily vote on this annexation after the July deadline for us to put this on the ballot,” St. George spokesman Lionel Rainey said. “The timing of this is orchestrated to try to interrupt the petition process.”
Whether the petition would be invalidated by the action is open to legal interpretation, and the question has been referred to the state Attorney General’s Office.
The council’s vote on annexation is expected to be close, with many council members expected to demonstrate allegiance or opposition to St. George in the vote.
Councilman Joel Boé, whose district is in the heart of the proposed city, is considered a key swing vote. Boé has previously expressed concern about the impact the incorporation could have on the parish, but has been supportive of the process allowing his constituents to fairly petition for a new city.
Boé said he is torn on how to vote and was receiving many emails from both sides on the issue.
“This is more about the political process than the eventual outcome,” he said of the vote. “On one hand, (the city of Baton Rouge) is following the Plan of Government, but likewise the city of St. George is following the rules to incorporate. So both of them are following the rules, I just think there’s potentially some unintended consequences.”
Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle said the businesses have a right to ask to be annexed to the city if they wish, just as St. George has a right to petition for incorporation.
“It’s not personal toward St. George,” she said. “But there is no St. George right now, so it’s not fair to ask a business to wait.”
Mayor-President Kip Holden said he hopes the council will honor the business decision that the board of directors and shareholders of the Mall of Louisiana made after careful deliberation.
Holden said one reason businesses are interested in joining Baton Rouge is because of the uncertainty of what could happen to their taxes if St. George were to become its own city with its own school system.
Further complicating matters, St. George Fire Chief Gerry Tarleton entered the political fray Monday with an open letter that accused Baton Rouge officials of “tax mining” to the detriment of the Fire Department’s budget.
Councilman Ryan Heck, who has been supportive of the St. George incorporation effort, said Tarleton’s letter would weigh heavily on his decision.
“Above everything else, Chief Tarleton is a fireman, not a politician who twists words or speaks out of the side of his mouth,” Heck said. “His opinions on the public safety issues surrounding this proposed annexation are very important in my decision-making process.”
The president of the Baton Rouge firefighters union, Shane Spillman, said he found it ironic the council is concerned about St. George’s budget but hasn’t voiced similar concerns about the potential financial impact to the Baton Rouge Fire Department should the St. George incorporation effort succeed.
“I have been saying from the start that we would be in jeopardy of losing funding if the city of St. George was to incorporate, but it fell on deaf ears,” Spillman said.
He added property tax millages would remain in place for the St. George Fire Department until 2018, giving them time to prepare for any budgetary impact from annexation.
Holden also took issue with Tarleton’s letter.
“He’s using scare and fear tactics, telling them the sky is falling, but the sky is not falling,” Holden said. “We’re moving forward and no one will be in danger or have a life-threatening situation.”
Councilman Buddy Amoroso, at a meeting of the East Baton Rouge Republican Party, called the administration’s attempts to undermine the St. George petition effort “underhanded” and “wholly undemocratic.”
He said he will ask the council to defer its vote for 30 days, until after the attorney general could weigh in and a true accounting of the impact to St. George Fire Department could be calculated.
The hospitals don’t pay property taxes, according to the tax assessor’s office, and the Mall of Louisiana’s contribution to the St. George Fire District in property taxes would be less than $347,000, which is just 2 percent of the $17.1 million St. George Fire District budget.