BATON ROUGE, La. — Residents of a largely white suburb of Baton Rouge voted on Saturday to incorporate a new city of their own — to be called St. George — and take away control of the community’s taxes, schools and other services from the less affluent, more diverse surrounding parish.
The outcome was a rebuke to parish leaders, and illustrated just how strongly many residents wanted to separate themselves from Baton Rouge, the state capital, which is governed jointly with the parish.
Yet with just 54 percent of voters supporting incorporation, the referendum also demonstrated a split in the community over the proposition, with concerns that going ahead with incorporation could sow further division and financial uncertainty in what would be Louisiana’s fifth-most-populous city.
The yearslong effort began as an attempt to create a new school district, and evolved over time into a drive for a whole new city. Supporters said they wanted to improve schools, have more local control over infrastructure and have their tax dollars spent closer to home, rather than see the money spread across East Baton Rouge Parish. They said all areas of the parish would benefit as a result.
“When we create a better St. George, we’re creating a better parish,” J. Andrew Murrell, a local lawyer and a leader in the incorporation effort, told supporters at a victory party on Saturday night, according to The Advocate, the Baton Rouge newspaper.
But critics portrayed the incorporation effort as part of a pattern of white and affluent communities separating themselves from more diverse cities and counties.
East Baton Rouge
City of St. George
The St. George effort faced strong opposition from much of the Baton Rouge establishment, with local government officials, business leaders, the editorial board of The Advocate and even a former Louisiana State University basketball coach voicing dissent.
Opponents have questioned how a small, newly formed government could hope to outperform the established parish administration, and have argued that incorporation would only lead to higher taxes.
Sharon Weston Broome, who as mayor-president leads both the city of Baton Rouge and the administration of East Baton Rouge Parish, has been among the most vocal opponents. In a statement, Ms. Broome said that, incorporated or not, the area making up St. George would still be part of the parish and remain under her jurisdiction.
“Whether it be issues like drainage or transportation or our economy,” she said, “we will have the highest level of success the more we stay united.”
The city of Baton Rouge and East Baton Rouge Parish blended their governments long ago to reduce costs and eliminate duplication. But over the years, a few smaller areas within the parish have incorporated anyway, like Zachary, a suburb with roughly 17,000 people, and Central, which has just under 30,000 residents. St. George would be considerably bigger, with 86,000 residents, displacing Lake Charles as the fifth-largest city in Louisiana.
Leaders of the incorporation effort promised to build a lean city government that would privatize many functions and that would continue to rely on the parish for some services, like the Sheriff’s Department. A mayor and five-person council would be appointed by the state governor, according to a website created by supporters.
The passage of the proposition on Saturday opens a 30-day window for legal challenges while the new city government is organized. One of the most vocal opposition groups, however, has already said that it would respect the outcome of the vote.
“All the details and next steps will need to be discussed,” M.E. Cormier of the group One Baton Rouge said in a statement. “We look forward to hearing the St. George timetable, to see how we can work together to make our parish stronger. St. George has some very big promises, namely no tax increases of any kind, to keep.”
In celebration late Saturday, organizers of the incorporation effort posted on their Facebook page a message thanking supporters and a photograph of a “welcome” sign with a seal for St. George, stamped with “Est. 2019.” The post drew a flood of jubilant responses, but also a note of warning.
“We took a big leap of faith,” one supporter wrote, “and I expect no graft, no corruption, and setting up a city with resident input at all times.”