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Times Editor Out-Of-Touch with Hamilton County Residents

Source: Times Freepress

Annexation, or what?

Now that contests over the city’s annexation of key Hixson neighborhoods have been settled in the city’s favor, Chattanooga’s leaders should go forward with annexation of similarly dense neighborhoods in East Brainerd. These neighborhoods — Hurricane Creek, Windstone and Emerald Valley — were considered for annexation in 2009, but action was delayed to allow county government to come to an agreement over consolidation of key urban services. Since county officials have unwisely spurned that idea, the city has no choice but to increase its boundaries to include its natural tax base.

Residents of these neighborhoods, of course, will not like the idea. But the larger rationale for the natural growth of the city’s boundaries — which has included dozens of annexations since the city officially adopted its name in 1838 — is too compelling to ignore.

Compelling logic

If the city doesn’t continue to annex urban growth areas that grow up on its borders — and whose residents rely on the city’s roads, infrastructure, public services and businesses to sustain their jobs, health care, shopping and cultural amenities — it cannot maintain the tax base it needs to adequately sustain the demands on its infrastructure.

Without annexation to capture its natural tax base, it would have to raise the city’s property tax rates disproportionately higher, forcing its existing residents to subsidize the cost of services for the neighborhoods that are not annexed.

Fairness for all

The logic of annexation is irrefutable. The city’s commercial hubs and employment base would not exist if the city did not provide 24/7 professional fire service, more intensive policing, and other commercial grade services (i.e., sewers, waste disposal, roads and traffic signaling) that are necessary for insurance, security and financial viability. They also need the related urban density and customer and employee base that comes with that package. And it is that core base that generates the business and population base that sustains second-and-third tier retail businesses and shops.

Thus the people who rely on the city’s vital services that are crucial to the existence of their jobs and daily life must and should pay their fair share of the city’s infrastructure costs through the city’s property tax base.

The argument that residents in the county’s other incorporated towns and in the unincorporated areas commonly make is that they pay a fair share of the city’s urban-services cost through the city-county sales tax. But that’s not true, and it’s especially untrue for the free-riders in the unincorporated areas. Sale tax revenue is a relatively minor part of the city’s tax revenue — and half of that sum is paid by city residents, who constitute fully half of Hamilton County’s population.

So as unincorporated areas grow, the city must annex to keep from stacking an unfair share of the cost of the county’s urban infrastructure onto city-only residents.

Options not supported

There are other options, of course. The fairest is creation of a metro government to apportion the cost of necessary urban infrastructure to the broad base of citizens that use it, regardless of where they live in the county. That works well in Nashville, and it keeps property taxes broadly equitably and relatively low.

Shelby County, the home of Memphis and a slew of tiny towns, has adopted a county charter to endow county government with municipal-style powers, ordinances and urban service functions and related costs. Knox County has similar powers.

County officials’ myopia

Hamilton County officials, however, inexplicably remain tied to the dark ages of unmanaged and inequitably funded county government and urban infrastructure. They have adamantly refused to consider a county charter government, and the need to organize 24/7 fire departments, countywide waste disposal and comprehensive sewers and land-used planning. They refuse to chart smart planning (even for classrooms and traffic patterns) for the burgeoning growth that lies ahead for Hamilton County.

On top of that, they have refused to concede to the city’s alternative need to expand its urban growth boundaries beyond those in the current growth boundary agreement. They apparently, and rather smugly, seem happy to see the city’s tax base shrivel relative to urban demands. Indeed, they often act as if the city is an enemy from which they need to protect residents of unincorporated areas. Given the way they have lined up against the city’s previous annexation plans, you can bet they would howl if the city became driven to impose payroll taxes on residents who live outside the city but work for employers inside the city.

Timing supports annexation

It shouldn’t have to come to that, of course. But until enlightened, fair-minded, forward-looking officials take office in county government, the unresolved dilemma of how to fairly fund growth in urban services will continue to cloud the county’s and the city’s future. In the meantime, Chattanooga’s only viable alternative is to annex the urban areas that are now included in the existing growth boundary plan.

Mayor Ron Littlefield, bound by a two-term limit and barely 10 months away from the end of his last term, has nothing to lose by annexing remaining unannexed neighborhoods on the city’s boundary. He would serve Chattanooga well by taking advantage of the opportunity.

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