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Opposition to BREC breakup grows, with some raising questions about racial equity



BATON ROUGE, La. – Opposition is growing to a bill that would create breakaway parks and recreation districts in Central and Zachary, with some in Baton Rouge saying it’s a divisive idea riddled with troubling racial undertones.

But some local leaders insist it’s just a way to get their cities a better deal and more local control.

East Baton Rouge Metro Councilman Cleve Dunn Jr. called state Sen. Bodi White a “dictator” for sponsoring the legislation.

“In my mind, this is all about control,” Dunn said. “He wants to dictate instead of being in partnership with BREC. Conservatives like Bodi pride themselves on saying ‘limited government,’ but this is a duplication of government and services. I’m wholeheartedly against it.”

Dunn made the comment the same day White, a Central Republican who chairs the state Senate Finance Committee, launched a billboard campaign blasting BREC for, in his opinion, not being responsive enough to needs of local communities.

BREC oversees 182 parks and other attractions and is financed through property tax revenue. Under White’s plan, new recreation districts for Central and Zachary would be governed by their own commissions and superintendents.

Dunn and other Black Metro Council members said White’s efforts made it look like two predominately White, affluent cities wanted to break ties with the majority Black city of Baton Rouge.

“We’ve been experiencing White flight for some time to Zachary, Central and Ascension and Livingston parishes,” Dunn said. “Many people say they don’t want to be a part of Baton Rouge, but things like this show they still want to control what’s going on in Baton Rouge.”

Council Pro Tem Lamont Cole didn’t want to lean too heavily into the racial undertones of the matter. But he said it was an issue of equity, given the numerous disparities between Baton Rouge and its unincorporated areas.

“This attempt to split up BREC is not equitable,” he said. “When there are continuous attempts to dilute opportunities in these disinvested areas, you have to understand you’re pulling more resources out of a community, and leaving the opportunity for more crime to take place.”

Zachary Mayor David Amrhein, who supports the legislation, pushed back against the idea that race and income is driving it. He pointed to U.S. Census Bureau data showing Zachary’s population as 49.1% White and 47.6% Black.

“We treat every kid in Zachary the same,” Amrhein said. “We have opportunities that we give everybody regardless of race or how much money you have. Zachary’s never been like that.”

Amrhein said he’s worked closely with White for over a decade on the proposal. The city is prepared to launch its own parks and recreation department, and property taxes to fund such a system would remain the same as the BREC rate for a “few years” if the bill passes, Amrhein said.

“We will prove that we can run a park system better than BREC,” Amrhein said.

Metro Councilman Brandon Noel, whose district includes Zachary, said he mostly agrees with the proposal.

“I see the pros for Zachary doing it,” he said. “I think (BREC) takes more money than they provide to that community, otherwise they wouldn’t be fighting this.”

BREC says it receives about $2 million a year in tax revenue from Zachary, and spent about $7 million there over five years — an average of $1.4 million a year.

But BREC leaders say that doesn’t fully capture the value it brings to Zachary, whose residents can use the Baton Rouge Zoo and other public facilities in the parish, for example.

Corey Wilson, BREC’s superintendent, said he takes particular issue with the argument by supporters of the bill that Central and Zachary should be receiving more money for parks and programs based on the amount of tax revenue that comes in from each city.

“When you say you should receive as much as you put in, the second part that is never uttered, is if you put nothing in you should get nothing back,” Wilson said.

The idea that an area’s parks funding should be directly based on the money raised by its property taxes is “kind of offensive to me,” Wilson said.

“As a child without much, the fact that I had access to a park, played on teams, was mentored by my coaches, and I wouldn’t have had that because I didn’t put anything in,” Wilson said. “We were poor, but because I had access to that park, I was able to get those benefits.”

Wilson also noted that cities don’t spend tax revenue on services like roads and sewage based on where the most money comes from.

“They’re holding BREC to a standard they don’t hold themselves to as far as expecting us to spend money based on where we receive it from,” Wilson said. “They don’t do that, why would they expect us to?”

Central’s mayor, David Barrow, has opposed the breakup. He said he only learned of White’s proposal after the bill was filed, and said no plan is currently in place for Central to operate its own parks system.

That worries Metro Councilwoman Denise Amoroso, who said she has mixed feelings about the bill. Although she believes cities should have more control over their tax dollars, she’s concerned about Central not having a plan in place.

Cole had tried to have the Metro Council discuss White’s bill at their meeting Wednesday, but he couldn’t get enough votes to place it on the agenda as an emergency item.

Councilwoman Chauna Banks on Thursday implied that White had called her colleagues who didn’t support Cole’s measure and pressured them to block discussion of it. She said that, although some of them didn’t agree with what White was trying to do, they agreed because of his powerful position within the Legislature — as Senate finance chair, he has power over spending and other projects.

White did not return calls seeking a response to those allegations.

Council members Noel, Dwight Hudson, Aaron Moak, Laurie Adams and Amoroso voted against the discussion Wednesday night.

Both Noel and Amoroso on Thursday denied getting a call from White or anyone in his camp. Moak and Hudson did not return calls seeking comment.

Councilwoman Carolyn Coleman called out her colleagues who shot down the opportunity to even discuss the matter publicly. Given the all the national accolades BREC has received, she fails to understand the purpose of the bill.

“What are we doing? Trying to go back, or forging ahead to build what they claim is a better Baton Rouge?” she asked. “What were they afraid of with not wanting to discuss this? I’m keeping children and families at the forefront. All this is is a lot of dividing and division.”

At a Thursday evening town hall in Zachary hosted by BREC and City Councilman Lael Montgomery, questions about how, exactly, the bill would work were abundant, but answers were in short supply.

Wilson fielded many inquiries about what BREC services would be lost if the proposal went through, such as advanced summer camp sign-ups for parish residents, but he and the two Zachary council members in attendance had no information about how a breakaway parks system would operate.

No elected officials who support the bill showed up to the meeting.

Of the few-dozen community members who attended, none spoke up in support for Zachary creating its own parks system.