Once in awhile, government listens.
Once in awhile.
On at least this one occasion, Gainesville City Council opened its ears to public response and common sense. And as a result, it got it right.
The council in recent weeks had proposed a plan to annex 561 "islands" of unincorporated land surrounded by the city limits. Over the years, the city had annexed certain tracts to include areas targeted by development, bypassing less-desirable chunks of property. In time, those chunks also were developed into commercial areas or neighborhoods, yet remained outside of the city.
Gainesville sought to coagulate all these stranded areas to consolidate its borders and, in doing so, increase its tax base, though a corresponding increase in services might have made it a financial wash.
City officials claimed that annexation would eliminate confusion when it comes to delivering local services such as dispatching law enforcement or firefighters in an emergency. But there isn't much evidence of such problems over jurisdiction creating a gap in services, with city and county agencies seeming to communicate well over who should go to what. During an emergency, the goal is to respond quickly and worry later over who should be in charge.
Gainesville also touted other benefits to potential new residents, such as curbside trash pickup, lower fire protection insurance ratings, and cheaper water and sewer rates.
But for the most part, the folks in these islands were not pining away to become part of the city. They know that any boost in services would be accompanied by higher taxes, a tradeoff many seemed unwilling to make.
As a result Gainesville encountered quite a bit of opposition. Residents in the disputed areas were more than happy to remain unincorporated, unwilling to pay extra taxes for any change in services. Residents attending recent public meetings to discuss the move let council members know their feelings.
"Bankers created a problem, asked us to bail them out," resident Jerry Castleberry said. "The city created this problem and comes to us to bail them out. It's just not right."
A number of residents also visited city offices to voice their disapproval of the plan, according to city Planning Director Rusty Ligon.
Many businesses in these areas also preferred to stay outside of the city limits. For instance, the change would have affected those who own or rent mobile homes, some 86 of them in these tracts that would be in violation of city codes. Though Gainesville had offered to grandfather them in, the owners would be limited in their ability to add new units or improve the old ones.
And there was another stumbling block, this one coming from within Gainesville itself. The city's school system already faces numerous challenges, not the least of which is a budget deficit running anywhere from $5.8 million to $9 million. The addition of as many as 300 new students to an already-taxed system wasn't welcomed.
City school superintendent Merrianne Dyer said her system could have absorbed some new students, but that hundreds more would stretch the system's transportation, classrooms and other resources to the breaking point. She was relieved as any of the potential new residents that the plan would not go forward.
I think it's probably good news for everyone concerned," she said. "With the economy as it is ... this is a good decision in that it eliminates one more thing we have to face."
In this case, the system worked the way it is supposed to. City officials listened to the responses and decided that forcing annexation on residents who didn't want to join the city wasn't in anyone's best interests. Besides, who wants residents who don't want to be there? Any move that avoids further controversy and perhaps costly litigation is worth taking in a time when other matters demand attention.
Instead, the city plans to waive the $500 application fee for any property owners living in the islands who choose to become part of the city. That empowers those in these areas to decide for themselves if they want to become part of Gainesville.
Ours isn't the only city faced with large areas of unincorporated land residing within its borders. Jefferson is facing a similar question over 30 such islands of property, and receiving its share of opposition as well.
"What do you have to offer the people that are coming inside the city?" asked resident Herman Hunt, who lives in one of the affected areas. "It's not our doing coming inside the city. It's your doing - just like the islands being created is your doing."
Indeed it is. The problem stems from how cities tend to annex property to begin with; it's done in a piecemeal fashion not merely to increase the city limits overall but to cherry-pick high-end property that is expected to yield the most potential tax revenue. A better annexation strategy that is based less on individual property acquisition and more on a big-picture approach to the city's future might draw more support from potential residents in the future.
This time the voices of the people were heard and the city will find better ways to increase its borders, with the consent of the governed.
Listening to the people and bowing to their wishes. That's quite a concept. Someone else ought to try that sometime.