It kind of seems like a lifetime ago now when there was a serious effort to create a city of West Mobile — to incorporate that large swath of land full of people who did not want anything to do with what they perceived as the failing city of Mobile.
Those leading the charge made it quite clear they thought Mobile was poorly run and they had zero interest in being annexed into what they saw as a festering, crime-ridden mess. Unfortunately for them, though, a lot of people “out there” didn’t want to be part of their new city either and efforts to both annex and incorporate fell flat and the area has remained predominantly unincorporated county.
Roughly 15 years later, many of those same people are clamoring to be annexed into Mobile, as they recognize the organizational and financial headaches creating a new city would bring. They also know joining Mobile would mean a continuation of the services they’ve come to rely upon over the years.
But the only problem this time around is now some members of the City Council don’t want to let these potential new citizens even vote on annexation. It’s like some bad romantic comedy where the dashing young Tom Hanks is too busy to settle down at first and rejects Meg Ryan’s advances, then comes around only to discover she’s married Fred Richardson. That would be a great plot for a movie called “Crazy in Crichton,” but for now it’ll just have to serve as a perfect analogy for our annexation woes.
We’ve had flirtation one way or another for years, but have never been able to make a love connection. And I’m not so sure we ever will, but it looks like we’re going to be forced on a blind date whether we like it or not. And much like this overwrought dating analogy, nobody’s sure how it will all turn out.
Of course, the driving force behind all the annexation/incorporation talk these days centers around not only the City Council’s refusal last year to allow an annexation vote for roughly 13,000 would-be citizens, but the renewed discussion of reducing the size of the police jurisdiction (PJ) — the three-mile boundary outside city limits currently covered by Mobile’s first responders. A reduction in EMT services was the catalyst for groups to seek annexation last year. The council voted 4-3 in favor of allowing the vote, but a five-vote super-majority was needed for the referendum to take place, so the move died.
Way back in 2016 there was discussion of rolling back the PJ to save city tax dollars and also redirect resources inside city limits, but Councilmen Levon Manzie, C.J. Small and Fred Richardson voted against it. These three appear to have had a change of heart since then, though, giving this latest vote on rolling back police and fire services a better chance of passing. If and when it does, though, the annexation storm is going to hit hard. And that’s where this plan gets dicey.
There are about 70,000 people currently being served in the PJ, and while there’s no doubt many of them still have little-to-no interest in being annexed into Mobile, it also appears a sizable chunk of that group would like to become Mobilians. And, as that area is heavily white, such a massive annexation could upend Mobile’s racial applecart and turn this majority-black city back to a majority-white city. All this leads us back where we always seem to be — fighting about racial issues.
It’s still not entirely clear whether councilors will vote to roll back the PJ. Mayor Sandy Stimpson is supportive of doing so, citing millions in savings and an ability to refocus first responders inside city limits, which he believes will help overall city safety. But there’s still a committee meeting next week and it’s not certain when the council will take a final vote. It’s also not entirely clear whether the council has the stomach for pulling back the entire three-mile PJ, or just reducing it by half. The latter option may be more palatable, given complaints by the county about increased expenses on their part, as well as the difficulties of leaving those areas without ample protection.
But even a partial pullback is bound to create a whole other set of issues for the council. Leaving tens of thousands of people without police and fire protection is going to mean another push for annexation, so what happens then?
The councilors who voted against allowing an annexation referendum just a few months ago are going to have the same issues before them, and possibly with an even bigger racial swing looming. If all of last year’s annexation efforts had gone through, the racial changes would still have left Mobile majority black, but ultimately there are likely to be even more people looking to come into the city if the PJ is reduced.
These councilors have already been presented with every reason annexation makes sense for Mobile, so it’s hard to believe they’ll change their minds based upon the numbers and the danger to the city if it is eventually ringed in by a new municipality to the west, or that area is annexed by Semmes. Opinions vary, but in general it’s hard to imagine how it would benefit Mobile’s long-term future if those 70,000 people in the PJ formed or joined another city.
But I’d also imagine those councilors have faced a tremendous amount of pressure to rethink their take on not even allowing annexation votes going forward. Hopefully it’s been enough for at least one or two of them to really examine the reasons they opposed the last vote. The city’s racial balance shouldn’t be on that list.
Mobile elected a black mayor with a white majority and has twice elected a white mayor with a black majority. I believe we’ll have both black and white mayors in the future regardless of whether annexation happens or not, because we’ve generally voted for the person who appears to be best for the city at that time, not for the candidate spreading racial division.
By voting for a rollback of the PJ, the City Council will be setting in motion a circumstance that seems likely to significantly change Mobile one way or the other. Hopefully it will be the way of growth and moving back to the top of the list of the state’s biggest cities and not the start of stagnation in the name of racial politics.
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