So how did the Joint Commission do with the recommendations that were presented during the final meeting on Thursday in answering the call of the people for:
1) Meaningful oversight;
2) Meaningful services; and
3) Meaningful voice?
Hang in here with me _even if this analysis is long and sounds a bit pessimistic at the start. Being realistic and clearly looking at what we have and where we are is essential to knowing what we need to focus on in the upcoming Legislative Session. This dance is far from over and it's more about savvy politics than policy expertise.
We should let policy experts continue to do the excellent job they are doing with the issue while the grassroots stays focused on the political arena where we have an invaluable role to play.We've proven that all of us together can effect the conversation in the General Assembly about the annexation issue.
After my head stopped spinning from the confusion and chaos that dominated the way that the Joint Commission meetings transpired, especially the final meeting, I took a clear look at what happened and what we ended up with.
Most of the final meeting was spent trying to get through some tweaks to the laws that were proposed by various members, and as was admitted by the Legislative Aide, Steve Rose, "other speakers" to the Commission.
(Gee, I wonder who that was....could it have been _"The League"? )
The very first recommendation, which on the surface seems to address the "meaningful oversight" that the people were requesting, is to have the Local Government Commission (LGC) review city initiated annexations.
(Wow, the alarm bells were going off in my mind immediately.)
Let's look at the make-up of the LGC.
The LGC was created to oversee the balance sheets and borrowing of the local governments. They have done that well. Giving them the task of reviewing municipal annexations without any guidelines to determine whether the annexation should be approved will probably be beyond the Commission's ability.
In fact, it is very likely to end up with similar results to what we have already seen when the LGC was given the task of approving Tax Increment Financing (TIF) projects. The Roanoke Rapids Randy Parton Theater project was the very first TIF project that was given the green light by the LGC. That turned out to be a model of everything that could go wrong with a TIF project.
We need to take a look at just who are the decision making members of the Local Government Commission. I'll give that information to you straight and let you decide how this is going to work out for the two parties involved in a city initiated annexation.
"The Local Government Commission is composed of nine members: the State Treasurer, the Secretary of State, the State Auditor, the Secretary of Revenue, and five others by appointment. The State Treasurer serves as Chairman and selects the Secretary of the Commission, who heads the administrative staff serving the Commission. A major function of the Commission is the approval, sale, and delivery of substantially all North Carolina local government bonds and notes. A second key function is monitoring certain fiscal and accounting standards prescribed for units of local government...."
(The five "others")
Patrick Smathers _ Mayor of Canton, NC
Attorney; Governmental Law
2nd Vice Chairman, Region A, Southwestern Planning Commission
Ex-offico, Economic Development Commission
Mr. W. Calvin Horton _Chapel Hill Town Manager
Board Member - International City/County Management Association
Board Member (past) – Chamber
NCCU School of Law Professor – NAACP legal consultant
Allen Joines – Mayor of Winston Salem
Joines had served as deputy assistant city manager
Marvin Collins Distinguished Leadership Award from the North Carolina Chapter of the American Planning Association
Past Board member of the N.C. League of Municipalities and is the
Chairman of the N.C. Metropolitan Coalition, made up of the 25
largest cities in North Carolina.
John H. Zollicoffer, Jr. _Henderson City Attorney,
Municipal Law Atty
According to comments during the Joint Commission discussion of the LGC as the oversight body, this recommendation is supposed to be better than having the County Commissioners act as the third party in city initiated annexations. Someone claimed that the LGC would be less biased and more objective in representing the best interests of the affected property owners. (Who could say that with a straight face?)
The five appointed members on the LGC consists of lawyers, city bureaucrats, and unabashed associates/members of the North Carolina League of Municipalities (NCLM).
So the idea of LGC oversight was to address two of the areas of concern: meaningful oversight and a meaningful voice for the affected property owners. This recommendation gets an F- on fulfilling those needed reform areas.
After researching the membership of the LGC, I then went through the remaining recommendations that the commission waded through before voting on whether to recommend a moratorium or a referendum.
(You can read all of the amendments that were proposed on the agenda by downloading the document from the StopNCAnnexation website homepage: http://www.stopncannexation.com/Joint_Commission_Recomendations.pdf )
The recommendations from the Joint Commission sheet were cross referenced with the "20 point recommendations" that the NCLM presented to the Joint Commission at the December 17th meeting.
Six out of the eleven recommendations that actually passed out of the meeting for recommendations to the General Assembly were taken from the NCLM recommendations either unchanged or with slight alteration.
Six out of the eleven are just tweaks to certain areas of the law that will not significantly change the problems that we have with the laws that has caused the ongoing discontent since the laws were enacted, came to a head and brought us to where we are today.
The commission recommendations give us:
- A very minor change to how the annexation victims are notified of their impending fate. (NCLM #2)
- A minor adjustment to how we pay for those services that we never wanted or needed. (NCLM #12)
- A minor adjustment to the density standard used to qualify the next victims of municipal takeover.
- Minor adjustments to make it harder for cities to use "shoestring" or strips of land to take in areas. (NCLM #15 & 16)
- Minor adjustment to recourse with the LGC if services are not fully provided.
- An additional protection for large working farms from city regulation if the farm is annexed.
(Shouldn't it be absurd that large working farms can be annexed in the first place?)
- A lower threshold of necessary agreement in a low income area to petition for annexation. (NCLM # 19 & 20)
So what do we have left that could actually make meaningful reform happen?
The one recommendation to address meaningful services failed to pass but it was taken from the NCLM 20 point recommendations and fell far short of addressing the need to define what truly meaningful services are in the spirit of the NC Supreme Court ruling in Marvin v. Nolan. So the request to have meaningful services addressed by the Commission failed.
We have a recommendation for a moratorium, and that would be a fine tourniqet to stop the bleeding, but doesn't actually make any meaningful changes to the law itself.
We have a recommendation to exempt a small fraction of landowners from forced annexation, but the original subset of those who would benefit from this exemption was narrowed even further by the city advocates on the commission.
Recommendation III(C) is very similar to a Bill that was introduced at the very beginning of the 2007 long session by newly elected Representative Joe Boylan - HB 56. Recommendation III(C) doesn't have the Homeowners Association provision, but it is otherwise very similar. As passed by the Commission, a small number of situations where water and sewer treatment is provided by an third party utility provider would be exempt from annexation .
But, property owners with perfectly good private onsite septic systems are still subject to having their infrastructure replaced with municipal utilities that are not needed or meaningful, and costly at that.
The city advocates on the commission opposed Recommendation III(C) after insisting on amending it. Expect Recommendation III(C) to have equally strong opposition after it ends up in a Bill from both the city lobbyists and from others who feel that it unfairly protects only a small fraction of property owners.
The best thing that came out of the commission's recommendations for the pro-reform citizens and legislators of North Carolina is Recommendation VIII(A). Recommendation VIII(A) would return the right to vote on the annexation to the affected property owners. This puts the push for a vote of the people in a slightly better position than it was at the beginning of the 2007 Legislative Session.
But Tony Rand made it clear that he did not like this recommendation and it would not get past his desk in the Senate.
Does that mean we should throw in the towel because of that? Absolutely not!
We also need to get the reform legislators to rescue the need to deal with a better definition of providing meaningful, non-duplicating services and we need them to put third party oversight in place that really will provide a true representative voice.
Go back to the idea of using the County Commissioners to provide the third party oversight. They are the local government body charged with administering State laws and they directly represent ALL of the people affected by annexation decisions.
Keep calling and writing your legislators and the House and Senate Leaderhip as well as the Commission members so we can get meaningful reform instead of meaningless tweaks.