A light rain begins to fall as Kathleen, a 54-year-old teacher, explains how she found herself in Baton Rouge after Hurricane Katrina. Living off a major thoroughfare peppered with strip malls and big box retailers has been an adjustment, says Kathleen (not her real name; she asked for anonymity because the contentious issue has pitted neighbor against neighbor), but she's thankful for what she has today.
When she first made it back to her Gentilly home following the levee failures in 2005, 5 feet of water had washed away most of what she had. With few alternatives, except a will never to repeat that nightmare, Kathleen headed west on Interstate 10 and took one of the first exits into the capital city after passing the Country Club of Louisiana and Blue Bayou Waterpark.
She found a home for sale almost immediately, nestled behind a church and just a few minutes away from a Walmart Supercenter. "New Orleans is my home. It always will be," she says, waving to an approaching neighbor. "But this is where I live. This is where I am. I love Baton Rouge for giving me that new life and a fresh start. I found it a lot sooner than others did."
Her next-door neighbor hands Kathleen a basket of carrots and lettuce grown in her backyard garden. They exchange pleasantries before staring at the sky together. "Looks like we're about to get it," Kathleen says, moving closer to her carport and setting down the homegrown produce. When the weather gets cooler, they'll also share the satsumas that grow in the tree of the neighbor's front yard.
In the front yard of the home immediately to the left of Kathleen's house is a sign declaring, "Better Together." To Kathleen's right, among the azaleas in the yard of her other next-door neighbor, there's a sign countering, "I'm In." That sign is a show of support for the proposed incorporation of the City of St. George to be carved out of a swath of unincorporated south Baton Rouge.
Between the two opposing views, literally and figuratively, resides Kathleen, who doesn't like discussing politics. She first approached me to find out why I was taking pictures of her neighbor's homes. She gave me a sour look when I told her I was photographing the yard signs. I avoid the topic for a few minutes as we discuss the weather and her life back in Gentilly.
Finally, shaking her head and again glancing toward the darkening sky, she grudgingly weighs in. "We've got to do something about education," she says. "I'm not sure if this is the answer, though. I'm still weighing the issue myself. It's going to take me some time. A new city, I don't know. It means something to me to be a part of Baton Rouge. This is my city now."
Others interviewed for this piece also refused to give their names or go on the record, voicing concerns about losing their jobs or upsetting their neighbors. While Kathleen is the only one whose story is shared here, the reluctance of the others is further proof of how contentious the debate has become.
Unlike Kathleen, there are many people in Baton Rouge willing to take a firm stance on the issue of incorporating St. George. According to a December 2013 poll conducted by LSU's Public Policy Research Lab, 40 percent of the registered voters contacted inside the proposed incorporation area supported creating a new, independent city, and 35 percent opposed the idea. But that says nothing of the parish as a whole, which was 50-29 against the incorporation in the poll.
Ask proponents, however, and they'll tell you that the only tally that matters will come on Election Day — because only residents of the proposed city of St. George will be able to vote.
Supporters started their drive hoping to improve local schools but soon gravitated toward the Lawra- son Act, a state law from 1898 that provides a constitutional process for incorporating a city. To get on the ballot, organizers need the signatures of 25 percent of all registered voters in the target area. That means roughly 18,000 signatures, which are being collected at community meetings, outside businesses and at homes throughout the proposed city. Lionel Rainey III, a spokesman for the St. George effort, wouldn't reveal the count when contacted by Gambit, but he says they're close.
"We believe if we keep up the pace, we'll make it on the November ballot," he says.
As proposed, St. George, which is currently unincorporated, would become the fifth largest incorporated city in the state with about 84 square miles, more than 107,000 residents and a median household income of $90,000. By comparison, Baton Rouge is Louisiana's second largest city. It covers 76 square miles, has more than 230,000 residents and a median household income of roughly $58,000.
The income figures have helped paint a portrait of the proponents as privileged white families who want to create their own version of Ascension and Livingston parishes, which have benefited greatly from Baton Rouge's so-called white flight. While East Baton Rouge Parish has seen the number of school-age children drop from nearly 79,000 in 1970 to about 74,000 four years ago, Ascension and Livingston have seen their stats more than double for the same category.
The numbers were promoted by Baton Rouge Metro Councilman Ryan Heck in a missive to city leaders last week. Heck has been one of the more outspoken supporters of the St. George effort.
"You're destroying the middle class in this parish, and continue to do so at a breakneck pace," he wrote, adding, "The secret is out. The game is exposed. Too many people now realize that this town is run by a small group of elite businessmen who have teamed up with the Poverty Pimps that control votes with an endless supply of five-dollar bills and even more empty promises."
USA Today covered the issue in December with a headline stating, "Latest secession seeker: Baton Rouge's richer side." State Sen. Bodi White, R-Baton Rouge, who was behind Central incorporating in 2005 — against the wishes of Baton Rouge officials — says the description is overly broad. He describes the majority of St. George families as middle-class. Many live in mixed-race neighborhoods, although the mix drops considerably in the tonier subdivisions, of which there are quite a few.
To say the rhetoric is getting thorny would be an understatement. Baton Rouge Metro Councilman John Delgado turned to social media April 2 to say that thanking St. George supporters for any changes that occur in the local education system "is like thanking Al Qaeda for improving our airport security measures. I don't thank people that try to destroy our community. I condemn them for the terrorists that they are." He refused to apologize, calling proponents the "Baton Rouge Taliban."
When race is not a dividing line, the disagreement boils down to money, with top government influencers crying foul. The centerpiece of their argument is a study commissioned by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation that shows the incorporation would lead to a $53 million annual budget shortfall for the capital city. St. George backers counter it would be closer to $14 million.
The proposed city would be rich in sales taxes, due largely to the inclusion of Baton Rouge's largest retail centers. Currently the proposed area generates approximately $65 million a year in sales taxes, which Baton Rouge would no longer be able to access. That has made the Mall of Louisiana a major chess piece. Last week, city officials announced that parts of the mall and its commercial neighbors off Bluebonnet Boulevard — Baton Rouge General Hospital and Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center — are petitioning the Metro Council to be annexed into the city of Baton Rouge and taken out of the unincorporated area.
If that request moves forward, the petition will most certainly take some of the wind out of the sails of St. George supporters, since a judge could potentially rule the signatures collected thus far invalid due to the boundary changes, although supporters discount the notion. At most they say they'll have to reconfigure their budget. It's a hardball tactic that's being played in concert with other maneuvers underway at the State Capitol this session.
Lawmakers already have axed legislation from White to ease the conversion of the proposed city. Under White's bill, the St. George Transition District would have offered a way for services to continue and sales taxes to be collected in the interim between a vote of the people and the new city coming online, should the tally break that way.
William Daniel, Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden's chief administrative officer, lobbied against the bill, saying the new city would simply duplicate services and create an entirely different governing body. Baton Rouge already is taking care of all that, he says, adding, "We have a consolidated form of government that's worked very well."
State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D- New Orleans, helped kill the legislation as well, standing with her Democratic colleagues in Baton Rouge. "Why are we creating more government?" she asked during a meeting of the Senate Local and Municipal Affairs Committee.
Rainey says that defeat shows poor preparation on the part of government. The transition would have only been needed if the proposed city was approved by voters. "You can't complain about the financial implications (the) St. George incorporation would have on the city of Baton Rouge and then defeat a piece of legislation written to alleviate those implications," he says.
Another bill that was introduced and is still active would place a statewide moratorium on incorporations. A separate effort to allow an entire parish to vote on the matter, rather than just the registered voters in the incorporation area, was pulled from consideration last week. Going forward, even if enough valid signatures are obtained by St. George supporters, proponents predict the city-parish will file a lawsuit to bring the process into question.
"The opposition is doing everything it can to stop this," Rainey says.
While the movement started as a campaign to reform local schools and offer parents in the area better choices, the pushback from government officials (led by Holden) and increased media attention have given way to something entirely different.
"It has changed," Rainey says. "This isn't about only the schools anymore. Now it's a fight for self-determination and democracy. None of us were expecting that."