Commentary: Why annexation laws are a slow death for cities

The 2017 Texas Legislature’s passage of an anti-annexation law amounts to a painfully slow death-by-starvation sentence for Austin. If not reversed, this dynamic, growing city will fall into decline.

Yet, the law, which requires Austin and other large cities in Texas to first secure the approval of voters living in areas proposed for annexation, would be hard to reverse. Once granted a right to vote on annexation, affected voters aren’t likely to give it up.

Here’s what slow death looks like:

St. Louis was blocked from annexing land without voter approval in 1875, Detroit in 1926 and Baltimore in 1948. We occasionally read about resuscitation efforts, but those cities have been dying for a long time. Since 1950, St. Louis’ population has shrunk 63 percent, Detroit’s 61 percent and Baltimore’s 35 percent.

But the law is the law, and now Austin must confront the great Texas cultural divide that gave rise to the annexation law.

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No two people define the divide more than State Rep. Paul Workman, 66, a Republican representing Travis County House District 47, and City Council Member Greg Casar, 28, who identifies as a progressive and represents City Council District 4.

“I love being in the county, and not the city. I can shoot my gun. I can put my old beat-up truck on blocks and pretty much do what I want on my property,” says Workman, who works in construction services. He was a co-sponsor of the annexation law that took effect Dec. 1.

If Workman’s perspective is protecting constituents from the intrusions of government, Casar’s is on bringing new services to his constituents. Those services cost money — and the city’s revenues aren’t up to the task.

Says Casar, the son of Mexican immigrants, “The key thing I’m working on is rehabilitation and construction of more affordable housing for working-class families, workers’ rights and immigrant rights.”

Workman and Casar represent two very different districts. Workman’s district is everything west of Loop 360 in Travis County — and most of that south of 360. It includes 185,000 people and is 74 percent white, with a median household income of $97,300. Think executives, doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, high-tech engineers and entertainers, not to mention retirees who escaped higher-tax states.

Casar’s working-class district in north-central Austin includes 90,000 people, 65 percent Latino and 10 percent African-American, with a median household income of $36,100. Most are renters. The poverty rate is 36 percent. It is the city’s poorest district.

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Austin Mayor Steve Adler and City Council members reacted with dismay and indignation over the annexation law. Shouldn’t visitors who come into Austin for work, entertainment and health services support public safety services and the city’s physical infrastructure?

Sure. But guilt trips won’t persuade suburban voters to vote for annexation. Nor will actions like the council’s vote to increase the minimum wage for city employees to $13.84 effective next month.

Listen to Workman — and you know it won’t be easy.

“If the city behaves, if its regulations and taxes are reasonable, it should be able to make the argument that they (voters) should be a part of the city. I don’t think this is anti-growth.”

How to sell annexation by Austin to suburbanites?

• Make it clear that interlocal agreements, such as providing water lines to developers outside city limits, will stop. Services can’t be provided without tax support.

• Publicize the fact that Austin’s tax rate has dropped four times over the last five years, from 50.27 to 44.48 cents on every $100 of taxable value, largely because of rising values.

• Explain that if Austin annexes you, you would avoid the tax shock of a municipal utility district experiencing a plant failure, or taking on heavy debt. City maintenance costs are spread over a huge base in the city. Spanking new suburban neighborhoods eventually become old neighborhoods, with aging infrastructure.

• Sell Austin’s police and firefighting forces, which are first-class and at least match those in the county.

• Sell Austin’s zoning protection, the upside of regulation. If you live in the Rim Rock neighborhood on FM 1826, you now have two monstrous billboards looming over your subdivision because Hays County gives no zoning protection. That would not happen in Austin.

Austin should increase efficiency, cut waste, challenge tax incentives and abatements given to relocating businesses or sports teams and avoid spikes in employee compensation. People must know the city is looking out for their purses if they are to vote for annexation.

Finally, people like Workman and Casar need to keep talking to each other. That’s especially an imperative for Austin officials, because there are more people in Texas like Workman than like Casar.

Otherwise, how do you explain the Texas Legislature?

Oppel is a retired editor of the American-Statesman.

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Oppel is a former editor of the American-Statesman. Follow him on Twitter @RichOppelSr.

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