Last year, the North Carolina legislature failed to take any steps to meaningfully reform the state’s outdated and abusive annexation law. Next year, a new legislature with a completely different political make-up will have its chance to reform the annexation law.

There certainly will be many annexation bills introduced, as is usual. There may even be a bill that gains momentum. The bigger issue, however, is whether the proposed reforms will be just a farce, as they were in the House-passed bill HB 524 in 2009, or whether they will be truly meaningful reforms.

This article provides some quick tips on determining what whether a proposed annexation reform is true or fake.

True vs. Fake Reform

True Reform Regarding a Voice: Property owners being annexed would be given a voice in the annexation. This preferably would be a vote and, at a minimum, would provide the property owners a representative voice by having the county commissions approve all city-initiated annexations.

Fake Reform Regarding a Voice: In providing affected property owners a voice in annexation, there would not be unreasonable obstacles to obtaining a vote nor would municipal residents be involved in the vote. In HB 524, legislators tried to make it appear that there was a vote provision but made a vote a virtual impossibility and, furthermore, included municipal residents in the vote, thereby making the vote more about municipal residents than the affected property owners.

This is precisely the type of game that reformers need to watch out for and reject. It is an insult to all annexation reformers.

True Reform Regarding Services: A municipality should not be able to annex an area that does not need one of the following core services: police, fire, water, or sewer. As annexation victims know, cities will annex an area and justify the annexation because they are providing unnecessary services, and even duplicating existing services.

Any reform bill should require that an area be in need of one of the services and that the municipality can meet that need. A municipality should not be able to contract out services to meet this requirement if the area could just as easily contract out the services.

Fake Reform Regarding Services: HB 524 and other annexation bills introduced in 2009 played a lot of games with the concept of services. Instead of focusing on the services that an annexed area needs, attention centered on what a municipality could provide regardless of whether an area needed the service. That is precisely the incorrect way to look at the issue; it makes it possible for municipalities to ignore the needs of annexation victims.

There was language in HB 524 allowing municipalities to meet annexation requirements even if they duplicated existing services.

One key red flag: If any bill uses the term "higher level of service," this is an indication that municipalities will have to provide just more of a service, such as police protection, not necessarily better service or more importantly, necessary service for an area.

When it comes to questions regarding services, ask the following questions:

1)   Does the annexed area need police, fire, water, or sewer service? If no, there should be no annexation. If yes, then there is still question 2.

2)   Can the municipality, without contracting out the service, provide the needed service? If no, then there should be no annexation. If yes, then a municipality should be able to move forward with its annexation (there would still be a vote).

True Reform Regarding Water and Sewer Infrastructure Costs: Municipalities should have to pay for the costs of bringing water and sewer lines to each property that is being annexed.

Fake Reform Regarding Water and Sewer Infrastructure Costs: If the legislature does not address this issue, then it is not per se fake, but non-existent. There also could be attempts to address this issue by covering only a small amount of the burden imposed on property owners for having lines brought to their properties.

Please remember, the cities are the ones who initiate these annexations and therefore should bear the costs. Also, protections need to be in place to ensure that municipalities do not charge exorbitant tap fees or other related costs to make up for having to pay for bringing water and sewer lines to each property.

More Fake Reforms: There almost certainly will be attempts to address issues such as density and notice requirements and other ancillary issues regarding annexation. If an annexation bill did not address one of these pointless issues, then that would probably be beneficial because it would simplify the annexation reform bill.

Annexation reform is not complicated! It is very simple. Legislators either believe property owners should have a voice or they don’t. They either believe necessary services should be required or they don’t. They either believe cities should pay for water and sewer or they don’t. Everything else is just window dressing.

We will see soon enough whether the legislature is genuinely concerned about annexation reform or whether there will be more insulting games as there were in 2009 with HB 524.

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