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Bill proposes mediation prior to island annexations
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Ongoing concerns about the costs associated with providing services in Gainesville and unincorporated parts of Hall County have led state lawmakers to push for a bill that would put a mediation process in place for dealing with the city’s next round of “island” annexations.

An island is a property in unincorporated Hall County that is encircled by property within the Gainesville city limits. The city annexed 115 of these properties, encompassing mostly commercial businesses, last July, but left more than 400 residential islands to be served by the county.

City officials said the annexations were made to clear up boundary lines, establish uniform zoning standards along gateway and commercial corridors, and make it easier to ensure local services are provided.

But critics say the annexations were little more than a revenue grab by the city, while sticking the county with the responsibility to continue providing public safety and other services to residential areas.

“And those (areas) require the most services,” said Hall County Commissioner Scott Gibbs.

The Hall County Board of Commissioners showed up Monday morning at the Capitol in Atlanta to show support for House Bill 690, which is being spearheaded by State Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville.

Commissioners are hoping the proposed law would help clarify which government provides which services in which areas. They say island annexations have created more confusion where duplicate services are being provided because, for example, one side of a local street is served by the city, while the other is served by the county.

“There are some issues when it comes to emergency situations on who the first responder should be,” Gibbs said.

Additionally, county officials said the city’s annexations have created more islands, and they said they’d like Gainesville to go ahead and usurp the remaining residential properties.

“I think we would have preferred they take all the islands rather than cherry-pick the islands,” Commissioner Craig Lutz said. “The issue we have is that they’ve left the service issues within the islands to the county.”

But more annexations are not likely anytime soon.

Gainesville City Council has received a report on the estimated financial impact of annexing the remaining residential lands, costs that officials say are unsustainable for police, fire, public utilities and other departments.

“I think the impacts ... outweigh the benefits,” said Rusty Ligon, director of the city’s Community Development Department, adding that annexations could run into the millions of dollars in annual capital and operations costs.

Of course, the county must bear those costs instead.

One of the more contentious aspects of the annexation last year was that county officials said they felt left out of the process, a sticking point they hope will be remedied by the proposed state legislation that would pull the two sides into mediation. The state bill initially called for binding arbitration, but that has since been scrapped.

“This bill is a step in the right direction to force communication,” Lutz said. “We’re kind of playing for some field position here.”

Rogers spoke before the House Governmental Affairs Committee on Monday, touting the necessity of the bill, which the committee unanimously approved. The bill will now move on to review by a rules committee before it can be brought to the House floor for a vote.

Rogers said he hopes to get the legislation passed before the end of this year’s General Assembly session. The bill must be passed in the House by March 3, or the 30th day of the session, known as “crossover” day, to be eligible for passage in the Senate and a signature by the governor.

“I think the process is broken,” Rogers said. “(The annexations) should have been dealt with differently. I’ve listened to the city leaders of Gainesville and, of course, they’re opposed to it.”

But not every city official feels this way.

“I still say island annexation is taxation without representation,” said Councilman George Wangemann, who cast the lone dissent against the city’s plan last year. “What’s at stake here is personal property rights, and that should take precedence over any other consideration.”

Wangemann, however, is not satisfied with the proposed legislation. He said a mediation process is costly and lengthy and that alternatives exist.

“I would prefer something better,” he added, “and that’s a hearing where City Council members consider the thoughts and feelings of all who own property that we propose to annex.”