The annexation reform bill passed by the N.C. House of Representatives is “insulting to those who have fought for annexation reform,” Daren Bakst, director of legal and regulatory studies for the John Locke Foundation said March 22 at the weekly Shaftesbury Society luncheon.
“When people say annexation reform is really complicated, it’s completely not complicated It’s a very simple issue. It comes down to this: annexed property owners should have a real voice in the process and they should be provided just one service they actually need,” Bakst said.
“That’s it. We can go home. That’s annexation reform right there.”
Bakst said that the key to annexation reform is to focus on the core issues and ignore the tangents on unrelated issues that do nothing but confuse the matter.
“The legislature should pass a bill with the core reforms, like SB 494,” he said. “The legislature should even consider blowing up all the bills and just adding a vote, county approval, or real services protection to existing law.”
The legislation passed by the House, HB 524, uses “smoke and mirrors” to do just the opposite. It actually strengthens the power of municipalities to forcibly annex. Although the bill purports to allow people to vote on annexation, Bakst called this provision “a sham” that “means nothing.”
In order to get a vote Bakst said, “Annexation victims have to get the signatures of 15 percent of the registered voters living in the municipality and affected area.”
“Why would municipal residents want to sign the petition,” Bakst asked. Using the example of Raleigh, that would require just over 38,000 signatures from city residents for anyone opposing an annexation by the city.
“That doesn’t include the fact that you are going to have signatures that are rejected, so you have to build in 10 to 15 percent more. There is no way anybody is going to do that,” Bakst said.
Instead of the city council deciding their fate, annexation victims will be subjected to the will of city residents who vastly outnumber them, Bakst noted. To make it even more difficult for annexation opponents, the vote would take place during a general election, when voter turnout is usually greatest.
Bakst said that the biggest problem with the bill is the language on providing meaningful services and benefits to annexed areas.
“HB 524 now makes it official: Municipalities can clearly annex areas without providing one necessary service,” he said. The bill includes specific language designed to preempt a possible court ruling clarifying the existing law
“There is a real possibility that the N.C. Supreme Court will clarify that these games being played by municipalities are not legal and they can’t continue to duplicate existing services,” Bakst said. HB 524 would expressly allow duplication of services. The bill complete ignores whether or not an area needs a service.
HB 524 also guts the requirement that municipalities provide newly annexed areas with water and sewer service within two years of annexation. Under existing law, municipalities can only get out of the requirement if the installation of sewer is not economically feasible due to the unique topography of the area.
Under the so-called reform bill, municipalities would have three years to provide the service and can get out of meeting this responsibility for any fiscal reason. Newly annexed homeowner who request sewer service must pay the total cost up front. They will no longer have the option to pay over time, as under existing law.
“Forced annexation exists to help local politicians. It’s a way of them bailing themselves out for their mismanagement,” said Bakst. He compared forced annexation to the Federal government bailout of banks and GM, “except that they (municipalities) can get it every year.”
One of the strongest proponents of forced annexation is the North Carolina League of Municipalities. But as Bakst notes, the NCLM represents local politicians and municipal cities, not city residents or even the interests of municipalities.
“Their basic game plan is to whatever their members, city officials, tell them,” he said. “What’s interesting is that there is no pretense about the fact that forced annexation has simply become a financial bailout,” he said. “You’d think they’d be embarrassed and not admit that.”
“Now there’s no question. They just come out and say we going to have to raise property taxes unless we annex this area,” he said.
“Municipalities and the League are like drug addicts: they can’t help but need forced annexation to cover up for their mismanagement – not to mention why should they care about people living in unincorporated areas,” Bakst said.
County commissioners are the number one enemy to annexation reform, Bakst said. “For 50 years, counties have sat back and watched their constituents get abused by municipalities,” he said.