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Annexation: Greensboro’s bid to avoid the fate of Detroit?

by Jordan Green

The city-initiated annexation process underway in Greensboro – incorporating a 3,320-acre band along the northwestern fringe that includes the affluent Cardinal area, along with several smaller parcels arrayed around about three quarters of the city – promises a better deal for the new residents enveloped within the city’s expanding boundary line than for current taxpayers, a preliminary cost-benefit analysis suggests.

Most of the city’s sales pitch has been directed towards skeptical residents of the Cardinal. City Manager Mitchell Johnson attempted to allay fears that city residency would increase the financial burden on property owners in comments made before council members voted unanimously to consider annexation of 12 different areas on Sept. 4.

“There is quite a bit of information regarding annexation that is different from the initial assumption, one of the key ones being an assumption that your net cost will double, i.e. your tax bill will double,” he said. “One of the things that happens during an annexation is many of the areas that are being annexed have city water. Well, you pay double for your city water right now.

“You also typically have a fire district, and you have to pay extra for sanitation services,” the city manager continued. “All those services are provided by the city of Greensboro once you become a citizen, and we’ve done detailed studies on individual properties and have determined that there is really quite a savings.”

The proposed annexation, which comes to a council vote in late November, would enlarge the city’s geographical footprint by more than 4 percent. It would add an estimated 10,144 residents and, city officials note, likely bump the city’s population above 250,000 in time for the 2010 census. Approval of all 12 areas would immediately add five times as much acreage as the city annexed in the two years between June 2005 and May 2007. It would be the first city-initiated annexation in three years.

The total acreage is predominantly residential, a land use that generally demands relatively higher service levels and yields relatively lower tax revenue compared to commercial and industrial uses. And those areas under consideration for annexation that are zoned for industrial use may not gush forth with new tax revenue, Assistant City Manager Bob Morgan said, because many are undeveloped or in a state of decline.

At the outset, city officials do not expect annexation to pay for itself.

“They typically don’t,” Morgan said, “not in the first couple years.”

He added, “You’re looking at extending services in a logical pattern. In the long term you want a break-even situation, but in some areas revenues exceed expenditures and in some areas expenditures exceed revenues. Overall, it should even out. In the first couple years, it’s not unusual to come out behind.”

The largest area proposed for annexation extends the city’s bulging northwestern frontier. Another tract covering 567 acres that is predominantly industrial stretches westward along Interstate 40 almost to Colfax. A wedge of land in the southwestern corner of the city on Mackay Road fills 48 acres. Several parcels along the southern belly of the city fill in holes inside the urban loop. And a 209-acre plot at the intersection of Interstate 85/40 and Mount Hope Church Road enlarges a floating satellite anchored by Replacements Limited. Owing to insufficient capacity from fire stations, a wide swath of unincorporated territory inside the eastern satellite stretching back to Barber Park near where Lee Street intersects with Interstate 40 will not be considered for annexation.

Among the major businesses identified inside the targeted areas are a Mack truck dealership on West Market Street and the Wet ‘n Wild Emerald Pointe water park on South Holden Road.

Planning Director Dick Hails said the city will issue four separate reports, the first available in time for the next council meeting on Sept. 18, analyzing the cost of extending services to the annexed areas compared to the expected tax revenue from new residents.

The one note of caution at the Sept. 4 meeting was sounded by District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small.

“I’m having a bit of heartburn about the volume of annexation and what we’ve got to do to keep up with this,” she told her fellow council members. “We’re going to have to keep with getting more water and more police. I don’t know if you know what kind of costs we’re looking at. There are other things to consider too, like mass transit.”

Morgan said the vast majority of the large northwest section already uses Greensboro’s water and sewer, along with fire service, so annexation would impose no additional costs on the city’s water resources and fire departments. The major costs will come from extending police service, garbage and recycling pickup and street maintenance.

The estimated cost of expanded police coverage comes to $3.8 million, said spokesman Lt. Brian Cheek. That would cover the cost of salary, benefits and training for 56 new officers, and does not include an estimated six non-sworn civilian employees required to perform support roles.

Slow response times have long been a source of frustration for police and citizens alike. A 2004 report produced by the city’s Budget and Evaluation Department found that the Greensboro Police Department was staffed at a lower level than similar-sized cities and had a slower average response time.

It’s not just the new population that stretches the police thin but also the geographical spread of the city, Cheek said.

“You’re annexing that Mount Hope Church Road area – that’s a high-volume traffic area with the potential for a lot of accidents,” he said. “Sometimes we have to pull officers from one side of town and send them to the other side for a major incident. Imagine being at the Cardinal and having to go over across town to the Mount Hope Church Road area. That happens.”

Communications Manager Nancy Lindemeyer said estimated costs for garbage and recycling pickup, and for street maintenance, were unavailable.

City officials were also unable or unwilling to provide cost estimates for the fire department, department of water resources and the transportation department. Planners do not anticipate major increases in water use and fire service. In the case of public transit, the city would be obligated to provide comparable service in the newly annexed areas. The city would not be required to extend existing bus lines, but would have to provide transportation to disabled residents in the new territory through its Specialized Community Area Transportation service.

Representatives of the city’s libraries and its parks and recreation system said they expected annexation to impose little or no new cost on their respective departments.

“[The Cardinal] is nearby the Kathleen Clay Edwards branch in Bryan Park,” Library Director Sandy Neerman said. “We’re not talking about an additional location. We relocated our Guilford College branch there. We anticipated that that branch would serve a greater number of population. It had been ten thousand square feet and we enlarged it to fifteen thousand square feet. So we would consider it a good regional library.”

Likewise for parks and recreation.

“What we’ve found is that barring that annexation to our far west, which is mainly industrial with few residents, all the other annexations fall within an existing service radius,” said Candice Bruton, planning and project development manager for parks and recreation, “so they’re currently served by a regional park and a community park.”

Larry Davis, director of Budget and Evaluation, said estimates of anticipated revenue from added property tax were not currently available.

City leaders have provided a range of rationales for annexing new territory to the city. Most stress concepts such as scale and efficiency.

“One of the key goals that we have with this annexation process is to fill in these doughnut holes,” City Manager Mitchell Johnson said. “It really is an effort of more efficiency for the use of our trucks. We already have areas that are far out. We’re trying to bring all that together so we can provide more efficient service for the citizens.”

The more compelling reason may have to do with shaping perceptions among those who live outside of Greensboro.

“There are a number of areas that create status,” said District 4 Councilman Mike Barber. “For cities and regions, one is wealth and one is population. It’s important for so many reasons. Any city that, like Detroit, is declining in population begins to develop an undesirable reputation. We want to maintain our status as the third largest city in North Carolina. We don’t want to be surpassed by Wilmington and Fayetteville.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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