Dell Sawyer believes becoming a part of Mobile would be preferable for a majority of 13,000 residents in three specific unincorporated areas of the county, and he hopes a supermajority of the Mobile City Council will move forward next week to allow a referendum vote to help make that happen.
“I think we, hands down, have support within the community,” Sawyer, chairman of the West Mobile Annexation Committee, said. “I think for supporters it’s a way to help secure a place for our families through EMS, fire and future police protection and they are willing to pay more in taxes for those services.”
Since the city announced it would roll back Emergency Management Services to areas outside the city limits, Sawyer and his group have been working to promote annexation to residents. Although the city has maintained fire service, Sawyer is concerned residents won’t get the same level of service from a possible future volunteer fire department, the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office or county EMS that they would with city-run services.
An online petition called “Stop West Mobile Annexation” currently has 63 supporters. Those in support of the petition have said they don’t want their sales and property taxes raised and fear being forced into the city would result in the destruction of “peace and nature.”
The areas of West Mobile currently being targeted for annexation already pay a half-rate city sales tax. Sawyer said the increase in property tax would amount to $224 per year on a house valued at $150,000.
The area is also currently in the city’s planning district, so homes and businesses being brought in under the zoning ordinance would not be greatly impacted, Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said in presenting the idea for a referendum.
Now, residents in the Airport and Snow Road areas, Cottage Hill and Schillinger areas and King’s Branch could have the right to vote on the proposal because Stimpson has introduced it to members of the City Council. Three separate items asking for referendums in each area have been added to the council agenda for the meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 30. Per its rules, the council will most likely delay the vote for a week, but could vote on it as early as Tuesday, Nov. 5.
Stimpson said he would like to follow a pretty aggressive timeline to allow the new members of the city to be counted in the 2020 Census. If approved in early November, Stimpson said a vote could take place before Christmas.
If the new residents are counted in next year’s Census, Stimpson said, it could mean many positives for the city.
It could increase Mobile’s population to more than 200,000, making it the state’s second-largest city, based upon U.S. Census estimates from 2018. According to those numbers, an additional 13,000 residents would jump Mobile from the state’s fourth-largest city, with an estimated 189,572 citizens, to second with more than 202,000 residents. Montgomery would then move to third with an estimated 198,218 and Huntsville would slot down to four with 197,318. Birmingham would still rank first, according to Census estimates, with 209,880.
Stimpson said the increase to more than 200,000 would open the city to gaining more federal grant opportunities. The increase could mean an additional $5 million to $10 million annually in funding, he said, specifically pointing to policing grants from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). When you couple this with the roughly $2.2 million the city would receive in net tax revenue, following a five-year grace period for property taxes, Stimpson said it was really exciting.
The areas asking for a vote include a great deal of the “Schillinger Corridor,” an area rife with businesses that would bring a great deal of sales tax, along with other revenue. Stimpson estimates sales tax revenue from the annexed areas would bring in $2.57 million in the first year alone. Taking out an estimated $1.09 million in new expenses, there would be a $1.49 million windfall for the city in the first year, according to Stimpson’s estimates. By year five when ad valorem taxes in the new areas kick in, the mayor’s office estimates more than $2.2 million in additional tax revenue over expenses per year.
“We recognized we can’t take in more citizens than we have money to take care of them. If you have a profit in it, which there is about a $2 million profit in that,” he said. “You can spend that profit in Districts 1, 2 and 3, or 5 if you wanted to, right? But when you throw the additional grant money in there there’s somewhere between $5 million to $10 million just for public safety. Then you’re talking about real dollars to help swing the pendulum.”
While Stimpson’s office seemed confident in the amount of available funds the city could receive once it hits the 200,000-resident threshold, a spokesman with the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) seemed less sure in an email message.
“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,” Jim Plott from the ADECA communications and external affairs section. “As for law enforcement grants dispersed by ADECA, the answer is maybe. It would hinge on whether through annexation they took in some traffic hotspots.”
The DOJ did not immediately return a request for comment.
Stimpson said care was also taken to minimize the impact the proposed annexation would have on minority voting power within the city. According to information provided by the administration, a gain in population from these three neighborhoods would give black residents a 49 percent share of the population, while white residents would have a 47 percent share. The current demographic breakdown is about 50 percent black and 45 percent white, according to census estimates.
What we were very careful not to do is upset that,” Stimpson said of the demographic breakdown. “We did not want to tip the balance where you had more white than you did African Americans.”
In a statement, Council President Levon Manzie said he “looks forward to reviewing” Stimpson’s proposal and “determining if it’s in the best interest of the city.”
“While the mayor has certainly mentioned to me his interest in annexing some areas of the county, I have not had an opportunity to review his proposal,” Manzie wrote. “I think we all agree the city needs to continue to grow, although we may disagree on the best way to make that happen.”
Manzie and others on the council have previously expressed a willingness to allow the city to grow from within. Councilman John Williams said he thinks the annexation would be good for the city.
“People want to be here,” he said. “I think it’s a good move.”
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