It's been more than a century since new parishes were carved out of Louisiana's existing political subdivisions, but state Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-Algiers, thinks it may be time to create a 65th parish on the West Bank. He plans to introduce legislation this spring to begin that process.
The last time new parishes were created was 1910, when Evangeline Parish broke away from St. Landry Parish and Allen, Beauregard and Jefferson Davis parishes were created out of Calcasieu Parish. That brought Louisiana's parish count to 64, where it remains today.
No doubt those last four parishes came to life because of parochial concerns, including but not limited to residents' feelings of political alienation and wanting a greater sense of self-determination. Such sentiments have been expressed by local leaders in all corners of the state many times since then, but they have not gained enough traction to garner support for a breakaway parish.
In recent decades, some communities have been able to create new school districts or incorporate new towns (particularly in metro Baton Rouge), but only after considerable grassroots efforts and usually over loud political opposition. Occasionally there is talk in some parts of Lakeview about seceding from New Orleans. Like most such ideas, that one never gets past the talking stage.
Arnold, who is the dean of the Louisiana House of Representatives and prohibited by term limits from seeking another term, proposes combining the West Bank of Orleans and Jefferson parishes — from Waggaman to Algiers Lower Coast, from Marrero to Grand Isle — into a new parish. He says the West Bank communities in both parishes have long been "the stepchild of the East Bank."
The veteran lawmaker admits it won't be an easy sell, but he hopes discussing the idea will at least bring more attention and resources to the West Bank. Those discussions should include a look at how much West Bank residents pay in property taxes and other local taxes, and how much they get in return. Other topics that will have to be addressed are the costs of setting up a new parish government — electing and paying a parish council, sheriff, assessor and other parochial officials, not to mention the raft of bureaucrats and rank-and-file parish employees needed to operate a parish.
Algiers residents often say they feel more akin to residents in Gretna, Westwego and Terrytown than to folks in Mid-City, Carrollton and Gentilly, but what happens to all that kumbaya when it comes to deciding where folks have to go to access local government?
Still other topics include the costs associated with infrastructure — water, sewerage, streets, drainage, lighting, parks and playgrounds, schools, a courthouse, firehouses, etc. Those assets already exist on the West Bank, to be sure, but they are owned by Orleans and Jefferson parishes or school boards.
"Those things can be addressed," Arnold says. "The water, sewer and drainage systems are already separate from the East Bank, and the taxpayers of the West Bank already paid for those things. Schools and water and drainage could remain part of the existing districts and contracted with the Orleans School Board or the Sewerage and Water Board. Most of our schools in Algiers are charter schools anyway. At the end of the day, we have to look at the costs involved and the potential benefits. If the numbers don't work, I won't go forward with it — but it's definitely a discussion worth having."
There are also socioeconomic and political issues. For example, where would the new parish seat be located? Algiers already has a courthouse, but so does Gretna. Algiers residents often say they feel more akin to residents in Gretna, Westwego and Terrytown than to folks in Mid-City, Carrollton and Gentilly, but what happens to all that kumbaya when it comes to deciding where folks have to go to access local government?
The toughest sell for Arnold likely will be convincing his colleagues and political leaders in other parishes that his bill won't set off a round of breakaway attempts across the state. If the West Bank can break away, why not Lakeview, Uptown, or eastern New Orleans? Why not Kenner, Harahan, Covington and Slidell?
On the other hand, if merely talking about a breakaway parish helps bring more resources to the West Bank, what's the harm in having a discussion about it?
This promises to be a very interesting conversation, to say the least.