The proposed city of St. George took a hit Wednesday night, when the Metro Council voted in favor of annexing the Mall of Louisiana, Baton Rouge General Medical Center and Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center into Baton Rouge.
The measure to annex the three businesses turned into a full-blown hearing on the merits of the proposal to incorporate St. George, culminating with an impassioned speech by Mayor-President Kip Holden who called for unity across the parish.
The council voted, 9-3, in favor of annexation after more than two hours of emotional debate and testimony. Only Metro Council members Chandler Loupe, Ryan Heck and Buddy Amoroso voted against the measure.
The vote also pitted the Baton Rouge Fire Department against the St. George Fire Department, with dozens of firefighters filling the council chambers in an attempt to protect their revenue sources.
Holden told the council that the parish should remain united, while acknowledging that “some of the wounds will never be patched” after this feud.
“I stand here as a uniter, not a divider,” Holden told the council. “Are we going to draw a dividing line or work together for the future of everybody?”
Holden said hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on road improvement projects in the proposed area for St. George. He also said he would be making an announcement in the coming weeks about a major business relocating to that area of the parish.
“When I recruit a company, I recruit for the entire parish,” he said.
St. George supporters, many of whom wore city of St. George T-shirts, said the annexation was a calculated measure by incorporation opponents to invalidate their petition process and cause them to have to start over.
They also said the measure would hurt the St. George Fire Protection District by taking away the property taxes collected by the department from the mall.
But after the vote, St. George spokesman Lionel Rainey said the group was at peace with the decision and was hopeful Baton Rouge would let them continue their effort without presenting any more obstacles.
“After meeting with our legal team over the last several days, we now believe this does not invalidate our petition,” Rainey said. “We’re moving forward and we’re continuing to gather the remaining signatures. This should now take the financial argument off the table.”
Much of the argument against St. George is that it would divert sales taxes away from the parish and create a budget deficit for city-parish government. The Mall of Louisiana and Perkins Rowe were cited in an economic impact report as major sales tax generators.
However, the way the annexation petition was drafted, it leaves out the mall’s major department stores. Sales tax estimates for the mall have ranged between $7 million and $9 million, but those included the anchor stores.
Both fire departments expressed concern about the implications of the council’s vote.
Tommy Doran, a St. George firefighter, said annexing the mall would cut the St. George Fire Department budget and decrease response times leaving “lives hanging in the balance.”
“It could take longer to get there; those lives could be lost,” he said. “Many of us look at this as you putting in danger the people who live in unincorporated areas even further.”
Shane Spillman, president of the Baton Rouge Fire Union, added if St. George incorporates and sales taxes to city-parish government are cut, that Baton Rouge fire protection could be affected.
“A 10 percent cut in my budget means 70 firefighters go home,” Spillman said.
Councilman Joel Boé, whose district is encompassed by the St. George boundaries, voted in favor of the annexation. He said before casting his vote that it was the most important vote he will have made as member of the council.
Boé had been guarded about his position on the issue prior to Wednesday’s vote, while expressing support of the right of his constituents to petition to create a new city.
But on Wednesday night, he made clear he doesn’t think that incorporation is in the best interest of the parish.
“We are better together as one,” Boé said. “We need to make sure that our weakest link in our parish is not made weaker by unintended consequences.”
Debate from the audience was lively, but sometimes grew ugly.
St. George supporter Jim Mora read “Oh, the places you will go,” by Dr. Seuss to the council, in a lighter moment, because he said it’s a book he reads to his children on a bad day.
Another St. George supporter accused the council of being “bought” to support the annexation, and one person compared attempts to disenfranchise St. George voters with slavery.
Most St. George supporters simply asked the council to defer the vote until after the petition was submitted to ensure that it wouldn’t be invalidated.
“It saddens me when I see a purely political effort to rip the fabric (of our community) apart and disenfranchise thousands and thousands of people who are simply trying to work together to make it better,” said Dwight Hudson, a St. George supporter, to the council.
Several supporters of the annexation vote, wearing “Better Together” stickers, framed the vote in terms of honoring the wishes of the business owners. Others urged the council to fight to keep the parish together in the face of the incorporation effort.
“Like any parish, we all have our problems,” said the Rev. Gerard Robinson Sr. “Together we stand, but divided people always fall. I suggest to this council that you do everything you can to vote in a way that will keep this parish together and keep people together.”
William Daniel, chief administrative officer to the mayor, also criticized the St. George effort.
“Never have I seen a conservative movement say the solution to our problems is a lot more government, and that’s what this amounts to,” he said.
St. George organizers say they are four to six weeks away from collecting the required 18,000 signatures on a petition to put the city proposal to a vote in November.