There is an air of change in Tennessee. Perhaps it’s the fact that we’re entering spring. Or that the Tennessee Legislature is in session. Or that we’re about to crown another NCAA basketball champion. Of course, change occurs all the time. Change is the natural order of things. Nothing remains the same, and as depressing as that may sound to those of us who live in suburban or near-rural areas of Tennessee, that is just a plain fact of life.
The key question, of course, is this: Who controls that change and the degree of change?
Those who purchase property in unincorporated areas outside a major city know, at least in the back of their minds, that they are rolling the dice. At some point, the city may annex their property or business location, and the property owner will face a radical increase in property taxes and new regulations under the city code. Most people bet they won’t see such changes in their lifetime. But economic growth sometimes has a funny way of upsetting those best-laid plans. And most people feel powerless to stop those changes once they get rolling.
Current Tennessee laws favor “controlled” annexation and encourage “planned growth” beyond city borders. Unfortunately, the same laws provide little or no voice for property owners in areas targeted for annexation. Big city leaders tell us that annexation is good for us and that their investments and policies were largely responsible for changes that bring more jobs and more growth to areas targeted for annexation. While that is certainly true to some degree, it almost never is the complete story. County governments often share the costs of major infrastructure improvements and are heavily involved in growth planning, as required by law. But arguing about which entity should get credit for growth avoids the important question, especially for property owners facing annexation: Who controls the change?
From statements by city officials throughout the state, you would think city leaders felt it their divine right to govern properties targeted for annexation, with no input from property owners. To me, that sounds a little like being required by law to purchase health insurance – they are taking my money and asserting dominion over my property, telling me what to do with it and how to do it. The needs of the greater community take precedence. And I get little or no say in the matter. Yet, that is the presumption and the practice in Tennessee under its forced annexation laws. Residents in unincorporated areas presently have only two choices: accept annexation or undertake a challenging petition campaign to incorporate a new city to at least ensure more local control.
A bill being considered in the Tennessee State Legislature could change that. Rep. Mike Carter’s HB (for House Bill) 475 seeks to require a public referendum for each future annexation. This bill will return to citizens the right to consent to annexation, a right they had throughout much of the 20th Century until the legislature removed it to empower cities to annex merely through ordinance. Right2Vote and our coalition partners wholeheartedly support Rep. Carter’s bill and ask our state representatives in the Finance and Ways and Means committees to vote it out so it can have a fair hearing and straight up or down vote on the House floor.
Good government requires active citizen participation, and that participation is best ensured when government is close enough to engage personally with citizens – rather than 23 miles away in a city hall with limited parking and inconvenient public forums for those living on the outskirts of town. Local government, in particular, should be by consent, not forced onto citizens as a cover for revenue redistribution. Responsible state legislators should encourage government by consent and not allow it to be directly undermined for the temporary convenience of city interests. As G. K. Chesterton, one of the 20th Century’s finest authors, once wrote, “It is hard to make government representative when it is also remote.”