Photo | Shane Rice
Realtor Butch Blum, possibly as much as anyone, embodies the changing mentality of many residents of West Mobile, who have begun to favor annexation into Mobile.
Blum, who railed against earlier annexations and even led a charge to incorporate West Mobile, now says he’d welcome being added into the state’s fourth largest city, along with a number of other residents out there. Whether he will get the chance to vote to join Mobile, though, won’t be decided for another two weeks after the Mobile City Council agreed 6-1 to put off until Nov. 19 a vote on allowing three annexation referendums.
“I think now feelings have changed,” he said. “I think the areas in the proposal will pass it.”
The residents in areas impacted by the latest annexation debate currently spend money, and provide sales tax revenue to the city, he said. Until very recently, residents were under the direction of the city’s planning jurisdiction and they currently pay half-priced taxes and business license fees. For all the money residents out west pay into the city, they have no representation in city government and Blum would like that to change.
“We’re governed by council rules and we shop in city stores, but we can’t vote for council,” he said. “We can’t vote for mayor.”
West Mobile has also moved from a more rural area to a more urban area and feels much closer to the city than the area did back in 2000, Blum said.
As for the 7 mill property tax increase, Blum said the hike wouldn’t take effect for five years and would be offset by the advantages of joining the city, which would include garbage and trash pickup.
A larger city would also do a better job at attracting more business, he said.
The affected neighborhoods are in the Airport/Snow Road area, where Blum lives, the Schillinger Road/Cottage Hill area and the King’s Branch subdivision near Semmes.
Despite those words of support, some 13,000 West Mobile residents may not be allowed to vote in a referendum to join the city, if the Mobile City Council votes down three resolutions calling for a vote of the people to decide the move’s fate. At a meeting Tuesday, Nov. 5, members of the council voted to delay a decision for at least two weeks.
Mayor Sandy Stimpson said his office asked for the delay in an effort to dispel “misinformation” and “clear the air” over the vote. Stimpson said he would be “engaged” over the next 14 days with various groups to help in this process.
Despite the delay, two councilors appeared ready to vote against annexation on Tuesday. Councilman Fred Richardson argued that the $2.2 million in net tax revenue that would be brought in would not be enough to justify bringing in new residents.
Councilman C.J. Small also appeared to be ready to vote against the proposal. For Small, it comes down to taking care of what the city already has, which he argued has not been done. He compared the debate to a rental house owner, who ignores leaks in other houses, but decides to buy more.
“If we annex more and do not take care of what we have, we’re slumlords,” he said.
Small also told councilors there are residents of Prichard who would love to join the city of Mobile. He said the residents there voted for the water system to be taken over by the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System before MAWSS voted to not take it over because of an issue with an outstanding contract. Parts of another municipality can’t be annexed by another city.
Dell Sawyer, who has for almost a year led a group of residents favoring annexation since the city announced it would pull back emergency medical services from residents within the police jurisdiction, believes it’s just a matter of time before the city pulls police and fire protection from them as well.
A “no” vote from council would leave the residents with few options. Incorporation remains on the table, but Sawyer said he doesn’t want to talk about it right now.
“Whatever we do decide will be harmful to the city,” Sawyer said. “Within 10 years this area will be as dense in business opportunities as the Airport/Schillinger intersection. I think we can grow from there all the way to Grand Bay.”
Sawyer and members of the West Mobile Annexation Committee he chairs believed a fire district would not sufficiently cover the more densely populated areas in which they lived. Christine Drinkard, a member of the West Mobile Fire District Committee disagrees. She argued that regardless of the council’s vote, the area would need a fire district.
A fire district, Drinkard said, would cost residents a fraction of what an increase in property taxes would at $110 per year. The $110 per year would cover the cost of two stations with one full-time salaried person in each and a volunteer staff.
Sawyer estimated a 7 mill increase in property tax would add about $250 per year to bills on homes valued at $150,000.
Drinkard, who is a paramedic, said the county’s EMS service has added two ambulances to its fleet in anticipation of more calls in West Mobile.
“I think that’s a plus,” she said.
Drinkard also criticized the push from the city to only annex a small portion of the more than 70,000 residents within the police jurisdiction for political reasons.
“It’s very, very, very unfair,” she said. “It really needs to be an all-or-none situation to be fair.”
Because so many residents were left out of the annexation area, Drinkard said a fire district would have to be set up regardless of what the council decides.
The state is loosening its expectations on cities to cover unincorporated areas with services and it won’t be long, Sawyer fears, before Mobile is legally allowed to drop police and fire coverage completely from West Mobile.
Several councilors on Tuesday denounced pro-annexation advertisements aimed at Council President Levon Manzie and residents in District 2 and District 3. The advertisements have been paid for by a group called the Mobile Policy Forum. Public documents indicate the group was incorporated by Donelson Foose, John H. Lewis Jr. and former Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce President Winthrop Hallett III.
At Tuesday’s meeting, councilors called the advertisements inaccurate and in Manzie’s case the “post cards” have had the opposite of their intended impact. Manzie said that of the calls he’s received from concerned residents, about “63 percent” have been against annexation. He asked for the advertisements to stop, then implied that if they didn’t, he’d vote along with that 63 percent in opposition to annexation.
“I was not anticipating this level of politics to continue on a decision important to every citizen of our community,” he said. “I don’t appreciate it.”
One of the advertisements posted to the Mobile Policy Forum Facebook page depicts a restaurant check with the sum of $27 million circled. The advertisement says that West Mobile residents receive that amount in “free services” every year.
In reality, West Mobile residents pay half-priced sales taxes and business license fees, and while Mayor Sandy Stimpson has said the city spends $27 million on police and fire coverage out there, that number includes the entire 3-mile police jurisdiction — an areas that includes around 70,000 people — and not just the 13,000 impacted by the newest annexation push.
The Mobile Policy Forum was established in July, according to an incorporation document from Secretary of State John Merrill’s website and information disclosed on its Facebook page. That was months before Stimpson began a public push to annex the areas he claims will net a $2 million increase in tax revenue for the city.
On Thursday, Oct. 24, the Facebook page made its first post only a few hours after Stimpson made his annexation push public in various local media outlets. Cory Adair, a spokesman for the Mobile Policy Forum, wrote in an email the group’s intent is to “educate citizens of Mobile” and encourage “them to engage with their local elected officials.”
“I’m confident that the direct mail pieces help advance this goal,” Adair wrote.
As for the “misinformation” described by Manzie, Adair wrote he didn’t know what the council president was referring to. While the area impacted by the annexation vote only represent a portion of the larger three-mile police jurisdiction, the $27 million mentioned in the advertisement is the total amount spent outside the city limits.
“The City Council is presented with an opportunity to increase funding for first responders in the area they’re actually serving, and to alleviate the burden of tax dollars being spent outside the city,” Adair wrote. “The neighborhoods that approached the city regarding annexation recognize all of this. They also recognize that by exceeding a population of 200,000, Mobile will be eligible for millions of dollars in additional federal grants — which means more police officers, better equipment, and a new police precinct.”
More specifically, Manzie, on Tuesday, brought up an advertisement illustrating a high crime rate in the city as he discussed “misinformation.”
While Manzie said he didn’t believe Stimpson’s office was involved with the Mobile Policy Forum campaign, Councilman C.J. Small said there are many “similarities” between the information provided by Stimpson’s office and that put in the advertisements.
Specifically, Small brought up the idea of a new precinct along Dauphin Island Parkway. Small contends plans for the precinct were in the works long before annexation talks became public. He also argued the precinct would not be in a new building but in a renovated one.
Small said he felt he as well as residents were being “bullied” to vote in favor of annexation.
“Right is right and wrong is wrong, and this is wrong,” he said. “What’s the point of rushing this. We knew 2020 was coming eight months ago.”
There is also an anti-annexation group that has circulated advertisements asking councilors to support districts 1,2,3 and help maintain the form of government that requires a supermajority.
The annexation vote would not change the city’s form of government, established through a state law called the Zoghby Act. Local state representatives, both Democrats and Republicans seem averse to changing the city’s form of government that has worked since 1985.
Sawyer says he voted in 2008 for annexation of a similar area, which included his neighborhood, but other neighbors voted down the effort. Mobile Terrace voted to be annexed in 2007, along with a number of businesses along Schillinger Road from Airport Boulevard to Hitt Road. In 2008, then-Mayor Sam Jones also pushed for parts of Theodore, Tillman’s Corner, Semmes and a small subdivision to be annexed. Only Theodore and the Windmill Place subdivision approved the referendum.
Richardson and Councilman John Williams both voted to allow those referendums, as did Councilwoman Gina Gregory. Manzie, Rich, Daves and Small were not on the council at that time.
The annexation of the Mobile Terrace area actually flipped the racial demographics by about six total percentage points from a 3 percent white majority to a 3 percent black majority, as Councilwoman Bess Rich pointed out in Tuesday’s meeting. The current annexation plans would only increase the city’s white population by two percentage points and the city would remain majority black.
Richardson said comparing the 2007 annexation to this one would be like comparing apples to oranges. For one, he said at the time then-Mayor Sam Jones pushed to annex all of the Schillinger corridor and had no control over the areas that were majority white voting it down in a referendum. At that time, though, city leaders were aware sentiment in some of those areas was strongly anti-annexation and likely to fail.
In 2019, Richardson said Stimpson has specifically chosen areas for annexation where there is a white majority, even though it is the communities that have approached the city for annexation. Manzie pushed back at Rich’s mention of race as a possible deciding factor. Manzie said no one at the council table had brought up “ethnicity.”
Small said he is not concerned about the race of those wishing to be annexed. He said he is more concerned about the condition of things in District 3. Rich pushed back, referencing Richardson’s declaration last week that the current annexation push was about the 2021 municipal elections.
The current annexation debate has raised concerns from councilors over how much money the city has spent outside of the city limits. The administration has told the council previously the city has spends about $26 million per year in the three-mile police jurisdiction on police and fire protection. State law only requires the city to spend the amount paid in business licenses in the police jurisdiction. Stimpson’s office has said that equals only about $2 million.
Manzie and other councilors have expressed a desire to spend only what it is legally obligated to spend, although he, Small and Richardson killed a 2016 effort to roll the police jurisdiction back from 3 miles to 1.5, which would have saved the city millions.
However, a push to reduce the police jurisdiction by half failed due to a vote of the council. Councilman Joel Daves brought up that vote on Tuesday.
“We have a problem and this problem has been going on for a long time,” Daves said. “Citizens are paying millions each year for police and fire protection outside the city limits. Those resources are diverted from people we represent.”
Since the failed vote to reduce the city’s police jurisdiction, Daves said the annexation was another opportunity to rectify the situation.
Manzie seems to have possibly changed his mind on this, publically he spoke out about the amount of money going outside the city. In his six years on the council, Manzie said the $25 million or so per year spent out there would equal $150 million. Manzie said he was “hellbent” on giving the money back to the residents of Mobile whether the annexation is passed or not.
“It’s unfair and I’m not in favor of it anymore,” he said.
Richardson also seemed to be against the money going outside the city. However, he didn’t answer directly when Stimpson asked if he’d be in favor of voting to rollback the police jurisdiction.
Richardson told Stimpson Mobile would be the first in the state to reduce the police jurisdiction. Stimpson countered by saying Mobile spends more in its police jurisdiction than any other city in the state. Stimpson said Birmingham doesn’t have a police jurisdiction, Huntsville doesn’t have a police jurisdiction and while Montgomery has one, it does not spend the same amount of money as Mobile.
At the meeting, Richardson said he felt the push to reduce the police jurisdiction was an effort to invite annexation. City attorney Ricardo Woods said the city had attempted to roll back the outer band of the police jurisdiction and for areas to be considered for annexation have to be contiguous, or to share a common border. Richardson added he doesn’t believe the city spends $26 million per year in District 1. He said the revenue is not there. Stimpson has consistently presented that the $2.2 million discussed as part of the annexation would be the net tax revenue once the costs for services are taken out.
Rich and Daves pushed back on some of Richardson’s comments.
“I say we can afford it,” Rich said. “We cannot afford to not go forward with that momentum.”
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