A bill that would halt all city-initiated, or so-called “forced” annexations statewide for two years, will hit the Senate floor Monday in Nashville, and its passage has major implications not only for Johnson City, but for Washington County as well.
Oddly enough, leaders from both entities share some of the same concerns over the bill and feel it will do more harm than good. Many believe the bill developed from an ongoing adversarial relationship between the two and a perceived aggressive annexation policy by the city, though it has played by the rules.
But a bill that was barely a blip on the radar screen six weeks ago has now set off an emergency alarm. And when all the complicated political lingo, the lobbying and huffing and puffing is set aside, there remains one critical point that city and county officials hope will be addressed before it’s too late: what once was a matter that local governments worked out among themselves is about to become a state dictate that could severely deflate economic development, tax revenues, school funds and public services.
“This legislation has legs, but the answer is not to have Nashville negotiating remedies for our local issues,” Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge said Friday just hours after returning from Nashville where he talked with Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, Rep. Micah Van Huss R-Jonesborough.
Eldridge said he suggested to the legislators that if the moratorium could not be removed from the bill that a caveat be inserted that would allow cities and counties to have the option of negotiating remedies themselves.
“That would give both entities the incentive to work together,” he said. “That way we’re back to making decisions about local issues using local governments. What we’re talking about here is unintended consequences, such as reduced tax revenues and economic development.”
The Senate State and Local Government Committee this week passed an amended version of SB0279 in a surprising 9-0 sweep. If successful, the legislation would rewrite state law and place a moratorium on any city-initiated annexations by ordinance until June 30, 2015.
A similar House bill HB0475, which is expected to be amended to more closely tie into the Senate version, is co-sponsored by Van Huss, and it is quickly moving up the ladder. This proposed legislation has moved from a subcommittee to the full House Finance, Ways & Means Committee, which is scheduled to air it out on Tuesday.
“My position is that I’m concerned about personal liberties,” Van Huss said Friday. “The bottom line is, people should have a voice. It shouldn’t be that annexation occurs because the city says so.”
Bo Watson, R-Hickson, is sponsoring the Senate bill. He represents District 11, which includes part of Hamilton County. The nine-member committee is comprised of seven Republicans and two Democrats and includes House members representing districts located primarily in the state’s midsection.
Meanwhile, the House bill is sponsored by Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, who serves District 29, which also encompasses part of Hamilton County. Van Huss is one of 13 House members co-sponsoring that bill.
“The Carter bill has not yet been amended to include the moratorium,” Van Huss said. “It seems like everyday something is changing. But the House bill as it reads now asks that there be a public referendum when a municipality seeks to annex and expand its Urban Growth Boundary. It’s intention is to let people decide for themselves.”
Johnson City’s Urban Growth Boundary was ratified by the Washington, Carter, and Sullivan county coordinating committees and the Johnson City Commission. The state’s Local Government Planning Advisory Committee approved the plan in 2000.
Public Act 1101, which the Senate bill would repeal, was created in 1998 and allows Johnson City and all Tennessee municipalities to annex land by ordinance that is contiguous with its Urban Growth Boundary. This happened recently in the Suncrest area and to a lesser degree in Gray, and the city’s action with consistent with laws contained in T.C.A. Title 6, Chapter 51.
Under the current law, cities also can extend infrastructure improvements on land within a Urban Service Area. This is done to prepare land for growth and future economic development.
“The law was a result of many years of economic development and growth and cities made huge investments in infrastructure improvements in anticipation those cities would grow into those boundaries,” said City Manager Pete Peterson, who also has made his presence in Nashville known almost daily for the past few weeks. “Recently, there seems to be a heightened state of resistance to adherence to that agreement. There have been a number of bills introduced that have been labeled ‘anti-city’ and ‘anti-growth,’ and cities across the state view this as being done in a somewhat haphazard manner.”
Peterson’s first preference is to keep existing laws in place. He also is strongly recommending to legislators and local leaders that the annexation issue be sent to the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. The 25-member commission is comprised of state and local government officials and private citizens and serves as a forum for the discussion and resolution of intergovernmental problems.
“This means a whole lot more than somebody’s land being annexed,” he said. “It’s going to impact growth patterns, economic development and the ability for cities to attract business. We just spent $20 million on our regional wastewater plant that’s in our Urban Service Area . It was done primarily to support growth in Gray. If the rules of the game are changed, it will force cities to restrict their plans for economic development outside our corporate limits.”