A group of annexation proponents are studying other options after the Mobile City Council voted down a possible referendum to let them join the city.
Despite a majority of councilors voting in favor of allowing the referendum, the resolution failed due to a lack of a supermajority, or five affirmative votes. Following the vote, the 13,000 West Mobile residents have four options moving forward:
They could remain part of the county and set up a fire district; they could try for annexation into Mobile at another time; they could incorporate and form their own city; or they could be annexed by another municipality, namely Semmes.
Del Sawyer, chairman of the West Mobile Annexation Committee, said the group is keeping all its options on the table for now, but he seemed convinced being annexed into Mobile was the best option.
“We’re going to let Thanksgiving get by and take a temperature and see where things are,” he said. “We’re definitely not giving up.”
From the beginning, Sawyer told supporters the council vote may not go their way and to not get too discouraged by it.
“I told them early on a setback is not a failure,” he said. “A setback is an opportunity to regroup. I told them not to be dissuaded.”
Being annexed into the city would help the county solve a lot of problems, especially once the city pulls back on the police and fire coverage it provides to residents inside the three-mile police jurisdiction. The city currently spends $27 million per year providing mostly police coverage out in the area. By law, the city is only required to provide as much in services as it takes in in business license fees. That number is currently $2.1 million per year.
Since the annexation debate began late last month, councilors have argued against spending more than is legally required in the jurisdiction and Council President Levon Manzie seems poised to introduce legislation to that effect soon, although he two other councilors voted against reducing the size of the PJ by half three years ago, killing the proposal.
If that legislation goes through, Sawyer and others will need a plan in place to deal with the reduction in services, whether or not annexation is discussed again in the future. Sawyer said his annexation group is currently working with a pro-fire district, anti-annexation group on a plan to create a fire district.
Christine Drinkard, a member of the West Mobile Fire District Committee, said the group already has its eyes on two pieces of property to serve as future locations for volunteer stations.
“We already have a couple of places to put fire stations that will meet the needs of the community and the laws,” she said.
One such site is off of Leroy Stevens Road, next to O’Rourke Elementary School, Drinkard said.
“It’s absolutely perfect and still available,” she said.
The other property is “a patch of woods,” and may or may not be available, she said.
Before any of that takes place, though, Drinkard said the group will have to present a petition with 100 names to the city to get permission to create a fire district.
As for fire district dues, Drinkard said the group’s most recent calculations estimate a rate of $110 per household per year. That amount would build and staff each of the two stations with one full-time employee around the clock. The employee would be supplemented by volunteers, she said.
A decision on a fire district has to happen quickly, Drinkard said.
“There are schools out here and everything that’s got to be covered,” she said. “We’ve got to put up or shut up.”
As for annexation into another city, Sawyer said the group has not discussed it. Semmes could take in all or part of the area, he said, but that possibility has not been talked about.
The group has discussed incorporation with County Commissioner Jerry Carl, but Sawyer called that a “very far reach.”
A series of pro-annexation social media advertisements and mailers from a group called the Mobile Policy Forum became a focus of the debate. Councilors complained the advertisements were part of a “misinformation” campaign and were meant to confuse voters ahead of the council decision.
Mobile Policy Forum was incorporated by Donelson Foose, John H. Lewis Jr. and former Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce President Winthrop Hallett III, according to documents on Secretary of State John Merrill’s website.
The campaign seemed to shift discussion away from the impact of annexation and more toward the amount of money spent in the police jurisdiction each year. Manzie said the campaign “woke up a sleeping giant,” but Manzie, Fred Richardson and C.J. Small voted against previous attempts by Mayor Sandy Stimpson to rollback a portion of the jurisdiction in 2016, thus killing the measure.
In denying the referendum last week, councilors brought up the negativity of the advertisements and Sawyer said he feels it hurt the annexation effort.
“I’m told they were hurtful … ,” he said. “I wish they hadn’t done it. It had a negative impact.”
Cory Adair, a spokesman for the Mobile Policy Forum, defended the group’s nearly $10,000 investment in the mail pieces.
“If I had it to do over again, I’d send out twice as much mail,” Adair wrote in an email message. “This organization was created to encourage citizen engagement with our elected officials. To that end, it has been a huge success.
“If anything, the response to the mail campaign proved that our council members don’t hear from citizens enough,” he added. “I very much look forward to helping change that.”
Adair worked on Stimpson’s previous campaigns, but wrote the mayor was not and is not involved in the organization.
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