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Blighted property. Debris strewn house at 3925 Beechwood Drive Monday April 29, 2019, in Baton Rouge, La. After Baton Rouge got out of the immediate aftermath of the 2016 floods, everyone decided to make blight removal and code enforcement a bigger priority. The mayor and Metro Council even set up competing committees to devise solutions. Baton Rouge got a new tire shredder and lost a department head in the process, and there are some promises to revamp Plank Road.

The location of a long-discussed tire shredding facility ignited a contentious debate among East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council members Wednesday touching on issues of racial inequality and prompting complaints that the conversation should have taken place months ago.

The tire shredding facility is seen as a way to tamp down on the parish's mosquito population. It is slated to be built on property leased by the Mosquito Abatement and Rodent Control facility near the Baton Rouge Airport, with funding through a $605,000 federal grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The Metro Council voted unanimously at its Sept. 11 meeting to move forward with the facility in approving a contract with Baum Environmental, a private firm that has agreed to operate the facility at virtually no cost to taxpayers. However, a handful of council members were in Washington, D.C., at the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference during that vote.

During Wednesday’s discussion, Councilwoman Chauna Banks, whose North Baton Rouge district would house the facility, read out the average median incomes of her colleague’s districts, noting the shredder’s location in a poorer, blacker part of the parish and pointed to the Center for Disease Control's commitment to tackle environmental racism.

“I want the CDC to tell me they’re OK with this,” Banks said, insisting that the shredder be located elsewhere. “These are the problems that cause disparities in our city.”

Councilman Matt Watson, who has long advocated for the shredder, presented a map showing the location of 311 calls complaining about dumped tires. The highest density appeared to be in North Baton Rouge.

“I want this tire shredder closer to where the problem already exists to change the behavior of those who illegally dump tires, to make it easier to follow the law than break the law,” Watson said.

Councilwoman Tara Wicker later surprised Watson when she said she’d be willing to place the tire shredder in an industrial area of her district in North Baton Rouge. Wicker said she’s asked the Parish Attorney’s Office to look for municipally owned property where it could be located.

“I love the tire shredder idea but we do have an impasse as it relates to where it can be located,” Wicker said. “We definitely don’t want to miss this opportunity or lose this grant, so we want to make sure to work expeditiously to get this done.”

The CDC grant could lapse if the city-parish doesn’t utilize the funds by June 2020.

Diane Baum, the chief executive officer of Baton Rouge-based Baum Environmental, told the council it didn’t matter to her where the shredder was located.

A handful of council members lamented that the discussion had reached this point.

“We can clear up a lot of this stuff by reading the information that’s given to us prior to these meetings,” said Councilman Dwight Hudson. “Just read the contracts before you vote on them”

“Some of us weren’t here when the contract was signed,” Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis responded.

“For the record, I love to read the full agenda,” Councilwoman Erika Green later noted.

During public comment, residents on either side of the issue spoke out on the shredder.

“Why are we arguing, we need this, this is something that we needed thirty years ago,” said Pearl Porter.

“For me it’s really simple: anything bad comes North; anything good comes South,” said Gary Chambers, publisher of the Rouge Collection.

Email Blake Paterson at bpaterson@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter @blakepater