The Mobile City Council is expected to vote Tuesday on whether to allow roughly 13,000 residents in West Mobile to vote in an annexation referendum later this year, Council President Levon Manzie said.
The council vote will come less than a week after a marathon meeting in which members heard Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s pitch for annexation, which could make Mobile the state’s second largest city and also should put it a little above 200,000 residents. Mobile is currently fourth in population behind Huntsville with 189,000 residents, according to 2018 U.S. Census estimates.
The three areas impacted by the decision are: the Airport/Snow Road area, the Cottage Hill/Schillinger area and the King’s Branch subdivision.
Residents of those areas initially began the annexation push after the city decided to roll back emergency medical services to the city limits. This left county EMS to pick up the slack. Residents in favor of annexation, like Fred Wheeler, would like to see those city services restored, in addition to garbage and trash pickup.
“We have a chance to do something good not just for our neighborhoods, but for others … ,” Wheeler told councilors. “We don’t get that opportunity if the council doesn’t give us the option to decide for ourselves.”
The 200,000 population threshold is important, according to members of the administration, because it opens the city up to more federal grants. In fact, Stimpson’s office projected the city could take in anywhere between $5 million and $20 million more in grants because it would enter a larger classification of cities, from 200,000 and above to 1 million in population.
A spokesman from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA), which administers some federal grants to various cities in the state, was less certain of the effectiveness of the threshold when dealing with federal grants.
“They may indeed receive additional funding from the U.S. Justice Department on formula grants that work off of population numbers and crime stats, but your best source would indeed be the U.S. Department of Justice because they do not receive those funds directly from us,” ADECA spokesman Jim Plott wrote in an email. “As for law enforcement grants dispersed by ADECA (Click It or Ticket, Driver Sober or Get Pulled Over and other traffic safety programs) the answer is maybe. It would hinge on whether through annexation they took in some traffic hotspots ….”
Specifically, Stimpson’s office highlighted the possibility for additional funding through public safety-related grants. The available funds could allow the city to hire up to 45 police officers for three years and could provide additional money for staffing of two new precinct buildings, both of which would be east of Interstate 65, Public Safety Director James Barber told councilors.
Council Vice President C.J. Small reminded Barber that a new First Precinct building on Dauphin Island Parkway had been discussed prior to annexation. The other new building would be a Central precinct, located on Water Street downtown, Barber said.
Council President Levon Manzie said only about 70 percent of the city was counted during the 2010 Census, arguing that if the city did a better job promoting the count in 2020, it could reach the 200,000 population threshold without annexation.
The city is set to see $2.2 million in additional net revenue from the annexation, acting Chief of Staff Paul Wesch told councilors. The full amount would kick in after the city’s 7 additional mills of property tax is collected after five years.
The city would begin collecting additional sales taxes immediately from Schillinger’s retail corridor, but the changes in the tax structure in the area does have a somewhat unexpected hitch, as Manzie pointed out.
Years ago, residents in the county voted to approve a sales tax increase to help increase school funding. At the same time, residents within the city voted instead to increase property taxes for the same purpose. If the annexation is approved through referendum, the city’s tax structure would take over in the impacted areas, with the exception of the property taxes, which would be added after five years.
This means Mobile County schools would initially see a decrease in funding, but would later see a slight increase, Wesch said.
Manzie and other councilors questioned why the city was spending some $26 million inside the three-mile police jurisdiction when state law only required them to spend the $2 million the city takes in for reduced business license fees in the area. By cutting services down from the 40 or so police officers patrolling the area now could save $24 million, those councilors argued. It is worth noting Councilors Manzie, Fred Richardson and C.J. Small all voted against rolling the police jurisdiction from 3 miles to 1.5 in 2016, causing the resolution to fail.
Administration officials argued that the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office was not equipped to handle the 70,000 additional residents within the police jurisdiction, where a half-rate of the city sales tax is collected.
Race played a part in Wednesday’s discussions as well, with Larry Wettermark, an attorney who helped Stimpson’s office come up with the annexation plan, telling councilors it couldn’t be ignored. Wettermark was the city attorney under Mayor Sam Jones and helped the city in setting up previous annexations.
The annexation would not flip the demographics, but it would slightly increase the city’s white population, Wettermark said. According to Census estimates, the city is currently 50.4-percent black and 45.4-percent white. The annexation would make the city 49-percent black and 47-percent white.
Some councilors noted that the last annexation, in 2007, flipped the city from majority white to majority black and the body still voted to allow the move to go to referendum. Some were asking for the same process.
Councilman John Williams said he’s received emails both for and against annexation this time around. He joked that those same individuals emailing him now had emailed him during the previous annexation debate and had the opposite viewpoint.
“This is a real good time to put your filters on and believe half of what you hear,” Williams said.
Councilman Fred Richardson, who has left the door open for a mayoral run, said he believes the annexation debate is tied to the 2021 municipal election. Richardson recently wrote on Facebook that he will be running “for the people” in 2021. During the last election he said he would retire from his District 1 seat after this term.
Stimpson has not yet declared he is running for re-election in 2021. He has not yet responded to a text message sent today asking if he would seek re-election.
Stimpson’s office, which announced the plan last Thursday, is pushing for a referendum to take place before Christmas so the city’s new residents can be included in the 2020 Census count. Councilors, like Manzie, questioned the importance of this. Specifically, Manzie asked if the new residents could be officially added to annual population estimates later in the decade. Officials said they could be added to estimates, but wouldn’t be counted officially for the purposes of federal grants until 2030.
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