Is Forced Annexation Good for Cities?

English: Chattanooga (city), Tennessee, USA, v...

By:  Brendan Jennings

The debate over Tennessee’s policy of forced annexation will reach a climax during the next two weeks in the state legislature. Rep. Mike Carter’s House Bill 475 will be up for consideration on Tuesday, April 9 during a meeting of the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee. Within the same timeframe, the Senate will consider the companion Senate Bill 279. We believe the arguments made on behalf of city interests against annexation by consent are wrong and ultimately damaging to cities’ own best long-term interests.

Since 1955, Tennessee cities have had two primary venues for annexing: through referendum or through ordinance. According to Rep. Carter, Tennessee has had four referenda on annexations in the in the past three years. Three of the four were successful. In previous years, similar successes were achieved through the referendum option. So why the need for annexation by ordinance?

The minority of cities that selected the referendum approach had to campaign to educate their prospective citizens on the benefits of joining the city. My guess is that, through campaigns targeting these property owners, prospective citizens developed a better informed view of city services and felt the service improvements were worth the increase in taxes. They likely better knew who their city councilman or alderman was, where to go for certain city services and who to call when problems cropped up. You would also think prospective citizens educated through a referendum would be generally more supportive of city policies than those annexed via ordinance. At least a referendum campaign had a better chance at educating and ingratiating residents and businesses in targeted areas better than announcing annexation by delivering a trashcan on wheels with a letter attached, the method used in the most recent annexation by the City of Chattanooga.

According to the 1998 annexation law, cities must develop long term plans that include establishing urban growth areas through which they may consider extending their infrastructure. Present law requires two public meetings within the county to consider public input to those plans. Are two opportunities for public input within a 20-year period better for good government than public involvement through an election?

Forced annexations as part of Tennessee cities’ 20-year growth plans offer a flavor of long-term thinking that is false. That thinking excludes an essential ingredient to good government in America – the consent of the governed. Over time, as more property is annexed via ordinance, more and more alienated property owners will make up the electorate of their new city. These people can’t help but feel that they were annexed strictly to increase the city’s revenues, breeding cynicism and negative attitudes about the city. Residents who have been annexed by Chattanooga within the past several years complain about being taxed immediately while not seeing promised services for years, if ever. When more and more citizens feel alienated from having no power to choose to join a city through a referendum, how can they not develop a strong cynicism about the city and its policies, which over time will prove a corrosive influence on that very city?

An amendment on Senate Bill 279 commissions a study by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) about the efficacy of annexations that have occurred since 1998, when the current annexation and city planning policies were implemented. If, for the sake of argument, the same amendment is adapted by the House and becomes law, it would be interesting for TACIR to conduct a comparative survey of citizens who came into cities through referendum versus those who were forced into cities through ordinance. My bet is that the cities that annexed via referendum will experience a more positive, active and involved public spirit than those that annexed through ordinance. Isn’t that what we want in Tennessee?

If you agree, please contact your state representatives and senators and ask them to support House Bill 475 and Senate Bill 279. Thank you!

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