Salisbury residents speak against annexation in Raleigh

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

RALEIGH (AP) ó North Carolina legislators seemed intent Tuesday to reform, if not overhaul, a 50-year-old law that allows the state’s cities to expand by annexing growing but unincorporated areas whether residents like it or not.
A state House judiciary committee began hours of meetings over two days this week in an attempt to soften long-standing gripes about involuntary annexations, a process shared by only about a half dozen states.
Protests have built from residents who saw property taxes increase, then sometimes waited for years before getting water, sewer or other benefits. Proponents of reform want to be able to vote on whether to become part of a city or town.
Municipal officials want legislators to make some reforms, but without opening annexation plans to local referenda.
The state’s involuntary annexation laws for years were credited with allowing North Carolina’s cities and towns to grow along with suburban sprawl. While many U.S. cities have seen middle-class residents flee their urban core to homes in successive rings of suburbs, taking their property tax revenues with them, North Carolina cities were able to avoid becoming the empty hole of a doughnut.
But property owners facing annexation, or those unhappy with their resulting higher taxes have urged for at least a decade that lawmakers limit municipal expansion powers. The pace of annexations in the 1990s, a time of booming urban growth, left North Carolina and Texas tied in the lead for number of residents annexed, with each state having more than 300,000 residents whose homes were attached to municipalities.
Bennie and Phyllis Hendrix are trying to avoid joining them. They were among the mostly retired property owners in matching red T-shirts watching House members consider paring the power of municipalities. The Hendrixes and their neighbors have fought a bid the city of Salisbury shelved last year to expand by including another 2,000 acres.
Annexation would mean paying more than $5,000 to connect to the city’s water and sewer lines and doubling the property taxes they pay each year for their home and two-acre lot, all without substantially improving services, Phyllis Hendrix said.
“The city does not have anything better to offer us than what we already have,” she said.
Bennie Hendrix offered another common complaint of annexation foes ó that cities and towns pick their spots for growth, absorbing subdivisions like theirs where property values are likely to generate ample tax revenues while avoiding poor areas that need services. For example, Wilmington’s city council voted in May to annex about 950 acres and 3,300 residents ó a move projected to generate the city about $520,000 more in property taxes and other revenue over five years than the cost of providing the area with services.
“I think it’s just the fact that these cities cannot manage their budgets” and see annexations as new revenue source, Bennie Hendrix said.
A legislative study committee that studied the issue recommended in January that cities and towns shouldn’t be allowed to annex unincorporated areas without a vote by affected residents. The N.C. League of Municipalities, which has allies throughout the General Assembly who are former mayors, opposes referenda.
Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, D-Cumberland, has said requiring referenda would block most annexations because few people would vote to take on additional municipal taxes. He said Tuesday he was involved in negotiations over legislation that would reform the law. He said he expected the Senate to take up the issue this summer.
The House committee expects to merge three bills discussed on Tuesday into a single, compromise measure it will hash out on Thursday. Besides whether or not to allow residents a chance to vote on being annexed, proposals include:
– tighter restrictions on areas considered ripe for annexation.
– making it easier for areas where many low-income families live to petition a local government to request annexation and city services.
– requiring a municipality to deliver services on the same level as other city residents receive within three years.
– allow affected residents a referendum on whether to reverse an annexation if city services aren’t delivered within three years.
– give new residents up to 20 years to pay assessments for water and sewer services to reach their property.