Photo | Shane Rice
I don’t know what choice we’ve got except annexation,” Hollinger’s Island resident David Hanlin said, discussing the city’s rollback of Mobile Fire-Rescue Department’s (MFRD) ambulance service.
“This [rollback] is a very serious matter,” he said. “I don’t want to put the county down, but I don’t think they’re trained as well. I’m worried about the response time from the county.”
Hollinger’s Island is one of several communities that has asked about petitioning to join the city since Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s administration made changes to the range of ambulance coverage within the police jurisdiction, which extends three miles from the city limits into unincorporated parts of Mobile County.
Hanlin, a member of the Hollinger’s Island Community Association, said the group is in “discovery mode,” in terms of annexation.
“It starts getting people’s attention when they pull out EMS (Emergency Medical Services),” he said. “You’re talking about serious business then because you’re relying on the county, which is already stretched so thin.”
Fire Chief Mark Sealy and Executive Director of Public Safety Jim Barber first presented the rollback plan to the Mobile City Council in July 2018. Under the plan, the city would no longer have primary call in areas of the police jurisdiction. In some areas of the county, like Theodore and Seven Hills, the responsibility of fire protection would go to local volunteer fire departments. In Hollinger’s Island specifically, MFRD would keep primary fire protection because Theodore trucks would have to cross over city limits to get to calls there.
As for EMS service, the city would delegate that to ambulance companies within the county jurisdiction. The move was designed to save the city time and money, as Sealy told councilors at the 2018 meeting. In 2017, a total of 12,718 pieces of apparatus went outside the city limits. That’s out of a total of 70,000 pieces of apparatus.
The financial considerations were the only reason Stimpson’s office supported the rollback, city spokesman George Talbot said in an interview on Monday, April 22.
Ways to annex
In the year since Sealy and Barber first presented the rollback plan to the city’s elected board, councilors have been fielding calls from interested parties about joining the city. There are three ways an interested community can do it.
State law allows for a community to petition to join the city, but that requires a vote from the local city council, League of Municipalities Executive Director Ken Smith said. In Mobile’s case, that means a supermajority, or five of seven affirmative votes would be required.
“The most common is the unanimous consent (petition) method,” he said. “Contiguous property owners can petition the city, but it requires 100 percent of property owners to consent and the property has to abut the city.”
If a property doesn’t fit the requirements of the petition process — for instance, if it’s separated from a city — the legislature can annex it into a city, Smith said.
“There are a handful of these each legislative session,” he said. “The city doesn’t have a say in the legislation. You hope the legislature would work with a city.”
This process is usually conducted through what is known as a local act, Smith said. Legal notices would have to be published prior to a vote of a specific local legislative delegation.
Another avenue for annexation is through the election process. In the case of an election, 60 percent of the property owners would have to petition for a referendum-style vote on whether to be annexed by the city. Like the petition method, a city council would have to vote to approve having the election and then a simple majority of those participating in the election would have to approve of annexation.
“It’s a complicated process,” Smith said. “Most of it is too complicated. And it’s expensive to hold an election.”
Most recent annexations
The most recent and largest annexations happened more than a decade ago when residents in parts of Theodore and Mobile Terrace voted to join the city. The communities came in through the election process and therefore were exempted from increased property tax payments for 10 years.
The experience in annexing parts of Theodore into his district has soured District 4 Councilman John Williams on future additions. Since that area of Theodore annexed in more than a decade ago, Williams said the city has paid for a new fire station, lighting, drainage, a new baseball field and a concession stand, just to name a few improvements.
“I think we’re losing with Theodore,” Williams said. “We’ve spent millions in Theodore. Maybe we made millions back, but I doubt it.”
Executive Director of Finance Paul Wesch said the city has not studied the return on investment in Theodore since Stimpson took office. However, Wesch noted the Theodore annexation included mostly commercial property, with a small portion of residential near Burroughs Elementary School.
“We have not measured it,” he said. “My feeling is there was a lot of commercial sales tax and business license revenue that doubled.”
Under current law, a city can collect half of the sales tax and business license fees in exchange for protection throughout the police jurisdiction. In the case of the Theodore annexation, the city would’ve collected full sales tax and business license revenue once the residents voted themselves into the city. By law — through the election process — the city would have to wait 10 years to collect the additional property tax revenue, Wesch said.
Williams said in the future he wants the city to try to get “better, not bigger,” adding that the city can be its best without increasing its land area.
“We’re not in the business of getting bigger,” he said. “We have to be in the business of getting better. Who cares if we have the number on the license plate? Who cares if we have the distinction of being the biggest?”
No matter how many new citizens come in, Williams said, it’s going to come at a cost to the city’s existing citizens.
“We need to be going to a process and figuring out how is this good for the citizens right now,” he said. “We need to be acting on their behalf.”
The councilman’s recommendation would be to bring in more heavy industry in order to boost property tax revenue.
In addition to Theodore, the city annexed parts of the Mobile Terrace neighborhood. Like Theodore, the area annexed in that deal was mostly commercial, Wesch said. The areas with more of a residential population voted to oppose the annexation.
Once again, Wesch said, the city has not studied the return on that annexation.
State Rep. Sam Jones, D-Mobile, was mayor during both of those annexations. In a recent phone interview he said he felt it was important to add as much commercial property in with residential as possible to help expand the sales tax base.
“The city has to look at how to pay for the additional services,” Jones said. “You have to look at bringing in economic corridors.”
In turn, he said, building new parks and fire stations in new areas was beneficial to the city as a whole.
Jones said he favors annexation, especially when the residents of an area are allowed to vote. He added that it’s important that the city not get boxed in.
Reggie Copeland, who was president on the City Council when those annexations were approved, said he favors annexation, especially in West Mobile.
“There’s commercial property out there,” he said. “There are people out there who want to see the services that can help them.”
Unfortunately, growth in areas east of Interstate 65 is not happening right now, Copeland said. “It’ll be west where there’s a lot of growth,” he added.
Copeland put some of the responsibility on councilors, who he said should each drive out to West Mobile and look at the new subdivisions and the new infrastructure.
“Doggone it,” he said. “They’re supposed to do what’s best for Mobile; north, south, east and west.”
Unlike Williams, Copeland believes it’s important to grow the city, especially when it comes to both state and federal funding funding.
“It looks bad already because we lost the number two ranking in the state,” he said.
Earlier this month, councilors approved the annexation petition of 47 lots in the Darby Creek subdivision. Darby Creek was just west of the city limits, off of Cody Road, and became part of District 6, which is represented by Councilwoman Bess Rich.
Rich was contacted first by a Darby Creek resident and steered them through the process with Stimpson’s help. Rich said Stimpson recommended they speak with former city attorney Larry Wettermark, who carried the mantle from there.
Rich, who said she approves of annexation in general, said she worked to help convince some of her colleagues to vote in the Darby Creek residents.
“I helped introduce them to the neighborhood,” Rich said. “The high interest was quite positive, I’d say.”
From there came cost studies from the administration, which showed the value of the homes and the infrequency of EMS calls meant the added services would result in the city possibly taking in slightly more revenue than it would spend out there.
“The economics were a positive,” Rich said. “It made it more agreeable.”
In addition to Darby Creek, Rich has been approached by two other communities looking to annex in, and while she seems supportive it’s unclear how other councilors would feel about the addition of more West Mobile neighborhoods.
“I’d love to see the city grow with more residents,” she said.
Councilman Joel Daves said he favors annexation, but each petition needs to be measured on its own merits because each one is different.
“There was no reason to oppose [Darby Creek],” Daves said. “It was densely populated and the numbers were good. If you had an area that was less densely populated, where first responders had to travel greater distances to respond and the ad valorem tax was not much greater, you’d have a more difficult time.”
While Darby Creek and Hollinger’s Island don’t appear to be the only communities discussing annexation, the prospect of future annexations is unclear. The Darby Creek petition moved on with a 6-1 vote in the City Council, but several councilors, including Williams, seemed leery of approving more.
Councilman C.J. Small, who voted down the Darby Creek petition, has made clear he would vote against the inclusion of Hollinger’s Island in the future. With any annexation needing a supermajority of five votes in favor, it would only take two more dissenters to torpedo the hopes of aspiring residents.
In his argument against annexation, Small said the city struggles to perform services in his district as it is, without the addition of more residents to the city.
Other councilors, such as District 1 Representative Fred Richardson, have said they’d only support annexation if it brought it more tax revenue than the expense, or the strain would cost the city. Richardson said he’d look at the issue on a case-by-case basis.
However, Richardson said he is also concerned with how the continued annexation of West Mobile neighborhood would impact the voting power of the city’s black population, especially during the 2021 municipal election. While Richardson has said he won’t seek another term on council he said “somebody” would be running in that election. Given the lack of success the previous times the city has asked residents out west to annex in, Richardson said he’s “suspicious.” For example, Richardson said, when Jones was mayor, areas like Tillman’s Corner and other areas of Theodore voted “no” to annexation.
“I want to figure out who is stirring this up,” Richardson said. “Is it anyone in the city government system?”
Talbot said there is no one in the mayor’s office or at the city who is pushing residents to petition for annexation.
The mayor’s office, like Richardson, said annexation petitions should be measured on a case-by-case basis and considered only if they make financial sense, Talbot said.
Council Vice President Levon Manzie said he’d prefer the city to grow from the inside. However, he and Richardson both voted affirmatively on the Darby Creek petition. Other instances, Manzie said, would have to be debated on a case-by-case basis.
“It was a small number of residents and the numbers made sense,” Manzie said.
Getting consensus from residents in communities outside the city limits might be hard as well. The petition method of annexation, which is the easiest, requires 100 percent consent from property owners in a given area. Hanlin, who lives in Hollinger’s Island, joked that 100 percent buy-in would “never happen.”
That could also be an issue for a large swath of residents just outside the city, who have for weeks been discussing three possible ways to deal with the potential loss of city fire protection.
Shepherded by County Commissioner Jerry Carl, the residents have split into three committees: one is pro-annexation, one is looking at creating a fire district and one is in favor of the status quo.
While Del Sawyer, the spokesman for the pro-annexation committee, declined to comment for this story, his counterpart on the so-called “status quo” committee has firmly reiterated his support for not joining the city.
Aubrey Bishop, a retired MFRD firefighter and paramedic, said he doesn’t want to see his taxes and other expenses increase by joining the city. As for ambulance service, Bishop said the only difference between MFRD and the county’s service is that Mobile’s trucks have one additional paramedic. He said the paramedics get the same training no matter the jurisdiction.
“Everybody wants to say one service is better than the next, but they all go through the same training,” he said. “Sure there are differences everywhere, but there will always be a paramedic on scene.”
As for fire protection, Bishop said the city is not going to let houses burn down because residents live outside the city limits.
“I don’t see any reason why we need to do anything other than the status quo,” he said. “I don’t know if they can just pull out. I don’t know if that would pass a legal issue.”
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