It looks like absence does make the heart grow fonder—at least in WeMo.
Just a few months after the city’s decision to pull back fire and emergency medical services outside city limits started being implemented, neighborhoods are lining up to become part of Mobile.
Last week, the City Council approved 43 households in the Darby Creek subdivision moving from unincorporated Mobile County into the city. That’s not a big increase in Mobilians, granted, but it’s just the beginning of what could be a major influx of newly minted citizens. Large numbers of people who have been accustomed to city services such as police and fire are petitioning the city for inclusion.
It’s hard not to change minds, but it is interesting to see people who used to extol the virtues of life outside the city limits now pushing for inclusion. If any part of the Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s efforts to pull back fire coverage included the hope it would spur annexation, then give him a gold star for political acumen.
Mobile has had the same population for 40-plus years, so an opportunity to actually grow is a positive step.
But as it is with almost anything the city does these days, there is controversy. When Darby Creek first came up for consideration a few weeks ago, City Councilman Fred Richarson quickly made it known he wouldn’t be voting for any residential annexations that didn’t come with businesses attached. He claimed simply bringing neighborhoods into the city would end up being a financial burden, but that was countered by numbers from City Finance Director Paul Wesch showing that given the amount of fire and EMS calls in the area—just three—over the 38 months preceding the police jurisdiction pullback, the city could actually expect to see a small amount of income from the annexation.
When the final vote was made, Richardson surprisingly voted for annexation, leaving C.J. Small as the only vote against. Richardson probably acquiesced to fellow councilor Bess Rich’s desires on the matter. Her support for Fred is the only thing that has kept his slim hopes for a council presidency alive, and also empowered him to disrupt, so she has a lot of suction with him right now.
Small went down pretty much the same road when he voted against annexation, claiming the city was already stretched thin financially in trying to cover areas inside city limits. Like Richardson, he’s made it pretty clear he doesn’t support more annexations.
But if you really believe any opposition to annexation coming from Richardson or Small is based upon fiscal considerations, hop into the DeLorean with me and take a short ride back over the past few years to when both of those councilors, along with Levon Manzie, blocked the mayor’s proposal to pull the police jurisdiction back from three miles to 1.5.
There wasn’t any talk about saving money then or worrying about the number of officers in an area. They, in fact, blocked council approval, citing worries about damaging relationships with the County Commission. Now two of those same council members are throwing on the green eyeshades? That’s hardly believable as the real reason for opposing annexation.
Perhaps some of those councilors feared this all along—that drawing back the police jurisdiction would ultimately lead to parts of West Mobile realizing it’s not so bad in the city after all, with all that police, fire and ambulance availability. Although they did go along with reducing fire and EMS coverage.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about “building Mobile up, not out.” It’s a catchy slogan, but hardly any kind of guarantee. Mobile has been stuck at roughly the same population for decades, and annexations during the Jones Administration have provided the only significant growth.
Why should we care about population growth? Because it’s all about apportionment. If Mobile fails to annex those areas to the west and is hemmed in by a new city of West Mobile, we could fall further behind other growing Alabama cities, getting less money from Montgomery and Washington. And let’s keep in mind that for years the city has been providing services to these areas that are asking for annexation. This isn’t anything new, but it makes Mobile a bigger player just by moving an imaginary dotted line and reposting some “Mobile City Limits” signs.
If you don’t think demographics and the city’s fragile racial balance play any role in any of the negativity towards annexation, then Mike Dow’s got some high-speed ferries he’d like to sell you. If enough people come in, it could change voting trends. But those are really political issues that have no role in doing what’s best in the long run for Mobile.
More annexation requests are coming and the City Council members who would hamstring the city’s growth really need to rethink the matter. It makes no sense to block annexations that are revenue positive—or even slightly revenue negative. Mobile’s future growth will certainly be much less likely if the areas west of the city limits are rejected and they eventually organize and incorporate. It’s been said that if that area did incorporate, it would be the eighth biggest city in the state. And look at once-sleepy Semmes’ explosion over the past decade if you need proof of what can happen to an area over a relatively short period of time.
Stimpson has handled the issue of annexation a bit like a pretty gal at a bar playing hard to get. (I’m not sure he’ll appreciate this analogy, but it’s meant as a compliment.) He hasn’t charged in at happy hour wearing a mini skirt and a tube top and dancing in front of the jukebox, but has sat back and flashed a bit of that ISO-1 fire rating, and now everyone’s lining up for a dance. A tasteful waltz.
The council should get behind annexation and growing the city west. Mayor Jones knew it was the smart thing to do and so does Mayor Stimpson. Thanks to those council members rejecting the police jurisdiction rollback, these areas still get police coverage anyway. Unless an annexation can be shown to actually have negative financial effects, it makes more sense to cut the raw politics and bring them in as citizens paying fully for their services.
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