Contact: Daren Bakst
February 12, 2009
RALEIGH -- Lawmakers seeking real reform of the state's flawed annexation law should tackle two critical issues that were not addressed properly in a study group's final report. That's the assessment of a John Locke Foundation analyst.
Click here to listen to Daren Bakst discussing this Spotlight report.
"Regardless of where one stands on other annexation reform questions, these simple reforms should be enacted without delay," said Daren Bakst, JLF Legal and Regulatory Policy Analyst. "First, municipalities should not be able to annex areas unless they provide truly necessary services. Second, municipalities need legitimate oversight when they initiate forced annexations."
Bakst addresses both issues in detail in a new Spotlight report. He also offers draft legislative language that would help lawmakers address key annexation issues.
Legislators can improve upon the recommendations the Joint Legislative Study Commission on Municipal Annexation approved last month, Bakst said.
"One of that group's recommendations would allow property owners in proposed annexed areas to vote," he said. "This important recommendation, overwhelmingly supported by a 14-6 vote, should be very encouraging for those who believe that North Carolina's outdated system of forced annexation needs to be changed. However, two other critical reforms were not addressed properly."
The first involved provision of "meaningful services," Bakst said. "A 2006 N.C. Supreme Court ruling explained that the primary purpose of forced annexation was to promote sound urban development by having municipalities provide meaningful services to areas that need services," Bakst said. "There appears to be wide agreement that this court ruling should be codified into law by requiring municipalities to provide meaningful services. Unfortunately, legislative staff working with the study commission provided a weak definition of 'meaningful services.'"
That definition was so weak that municipalities would have been allowed to annex areas forcibly without providing water and sewer service, Bakst said. "Water and sewer are the most important services municipalities provide to annexed areas," he said. "To ignore these services within the definition of 'meaningful services' is disingenuous at best. Fortunately, the study commission voted down this weak option."
A proper definition of "meaningful services" would require municipalities to provide water and sewer to areas that need those services, Bakst said. "The definition also would prohibit municipalities from simply duplicating services an area already has," he said. "The draft legislative language attached to my report is designed to address these important issues."
The second critical issue involves proper oversight of the annexation process, Bakst said. "In the case of both 'meaningful services' and annexation oversight, the study commission had its hands tied by the process of accepting or rejecting proposed reforms," he said. "Commission members were not allowed to amend most of the proposals made at the group's final meeting. Instead they were given the choice between a poor recommendation and no recommendation at all."
In the case of annexation oversight, this meant a choice between no oversight and oversight without any clear guidelines by the state's Local Government Commission, Bakst said. "The LGC is a poor choice to provide oversight over forced annexations," he said. "That group is not neutral in the annexation debate. Four of the five appointed members have a conflict of interest due to their ties to municipalities."
That's not the only problem with leaving annexation oversight in the LGC's hands, Bakst said. "Beyond its oversight of local government's debt management, the LGC's history has been terrible," he said. "For example, the group has oversight over tax increment financing. In that role, it approved the Randy Parton Theatre debacle that has saddled Roanoke Rapids with millions of dollars of obligations for a failed project."
It's clear elected county commissions would provide more appropriate oversight, Bakst said. "County commissions represent the interests of both the municipality and the annexation victims," he said. "Municipal residents and annexation victims also can hold the county commissioners accountable for their actions. The commissioners also would be far more familiar with the needs of their communities than the LGC."
Bakst's report is designed to explain how these "common-sense reforms" should be implemented, he said. "The details can make all the difference between real reform and reform that is simply a fašade."
Daren Bakst's Spotlight report, "Meaningful Services and Proper Oversight: Two Common-Sense Annexation Reforms," is available at the JLF Web site. For more information, please contact Bakst at (919) 828-3876 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or email@example.com.