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Prospects uncertain for law on annexation; finance panel clears bill before sending it to full House

By Mark Wineka
mwineka@salisburypost.com
The N.C. House Finance Committee voted 19-9 Thursday afternoon for an omnibus bill that would allow referendums on forced annexations.
But the final version of the bill now headed toward the House floor pleased neither involuntary annexation opponents nor the N.C. League of Municipalities, which lobbies for city interests.
The bill would allow a referendum on forced annexation if 15 percent of the registered voters in the annexing city and the area to be annexed signed a petition asking for the vote.
On the local front, four members of Good Neighbors of Rowan County attended the House Finance Committee’s meeting and were part of a walkout staged by red-shirted opponents from across the state.
The annexation foes walked out when the committee approved a titling of the bill that will not allow amendments on the House floor.
Carl Eagle, vice president of Good Neighbors, said if both chambers of the General Assembly ended up passing the version forwarded to the full House today, he could live with it.
He said anti-annexation forces in Salisbury and the county could mobilize enough to meet the 15 percent requirement.
Also, just having the referendum provision is a foot in the door toward really changing the 50-year-old annexation law in North Carolina, Eagle said.
That said, Eagle remains skeptical of the bill’s chances. He said he hates to be a cynic, but he fears something already has been worked out behind closed doors, and Eagle doubts this version will ever pass the Senate.
Marie Howell, another Good Neighbors member who has followed the annexation legislation closely, also has her doubts and described Thursday’s proceedings as more or less window dressing.
“I took it to be a show,” she said.
The 15 percent registered-voter petition requirement for a referendum will be virtually impossible to attain in larger metropolitan areas such as Charlotte and Greensboro, Howell said.
“For a small town, it might work,” she added.
Howell said she thought Rep. Hugh Holliman, D-Davidson, introduced the amendment to allow a referendum because he might be in danger of losing his seat otherwise. But Holliman voted against the change in title that would have allowed amendments on the House floor, she noted.
Howell said all the amendments for meaningful reform were voted down Thursday.
A spokesman for the N.C. League of Municipalities, Kelli Kukura, told reporters the league would work against the version of the bill forwarded on Thursday.
In general, cities oppose any provision for a vote because it’s essentially a veto. If people were for an annexation, city officials argue, they would seek it voluntarily, which already is a provision in N.C. law.
Two representatives of Salisbury city government attended the House Finance proceedings Thursday: Planning Director Joe Morris and Assistant to the City Manager Doug Paris.
“We’re here to kind of monitor (the process),” Paris said from Raleigh, “because these things impact us. That’s kind of my role to see what changes are coming.”
Besides creating a chance for residents to vote on being annexed, the reform proposal would:
– Tighten restrictions on areas considered ripe for annexation.
– Make it easier for areas where many low-income families live to petition a local government to request annexation and city services.
– Require a municipality to extend water and sewer lines within three years to the entire annexed area.
– Block property tax collections and further expansion if city services aren’t delivered within three years to an annexed area.
– Give new residents up to 20 years to pay assessments for water and sewer services to reach their properties.
Howell said the whole experience in trying to change North Carolina’s annexation law has been “a disappointing and enlightening experience for me.”
Last week was especially frustrating for annexation opponents from across the state who wanted to attend the House Judiciary II Committee meeting on the bill.
On June 23, members of the Rowan group learned during their drive to Raleigh that the meeting had been postponed until the next day.
On June 24, the opponents drove all the way to Raleigh only to find out just before entering the meeting room that it was postponed again.
On June 25, the group traveled to Raleigh and waited until the meeting convened at 4:30 p.m. They didn’t arrive back in Rowan County until 10:30 p.m.
“Many folks had taken days off work for attending on Tuesday, canceled doctor appointments, got baby-sitters, etc.,” Howell said. “Some couldn’t go the next two days, but some of us did.”
Howell described some of the proceedings in the House Judiciary II Committee meeting as “ridiculous.”
“I agree wholeheartedly with Rep. Linda Johnson (R-Cabarrus), who said, ‘We have had citizens crying out for reform for nine years, and we have not done what needs to be done,’ ” Howell said.
Mark Davis, president of Good Neighbors of Rowan County, agreed that last week’s committee postponements and the whole process in general has been frustrating for average citizens.
“It’s really hard to keep people motivated if they’re going to be jerked around all the time,” he said.

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