It’s time to force annexation out

“By one statute it is declared, that parliament can ‘of right make laws to bind us in all cases whatsoever.’ What is to defend us against so enormous, so unlimited a power?” So states the Declaration of Arms, a key document in our nation’s formation that was adopted by the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia on July 6, 1775—a year before the more famous Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration of Arms’ concern about unlimited power is strikingly relevant to the issue of involuntary annexation. Forced annexation, an anomaly found in only a few states today, enables a city to pull people, by decree, into a governmental system without their having any say whatsoever.

Suppose the United States decided that Mexicans were using too many American services and weren’t paying their fair share and simply announced that we were taking control of Mexico. Every Mexican would immediately have to start paying U.S. taxes, following our laws and reporting to our agencies. That’s basically what forced annexation is: one governing authority telling neighboring people that they will now be assimilated against their will. On Star Trek, that notion was the basis of one of the most evil collective villains of all time—the Borg.

Two Buncombe County delegates to the General Assembly, Reps. Bruce Goforth (a Democrat) and Charles Thomas (a Republican), recognize the inherently undemocratic nature of involuntary annexation and have introduced bills to address this. Both bills (HB 86 and HB 87) would give residents outside incorporated areas a fair voice in the process of annexation. I support those bills, just as I have endorsed other attempts to rein in this unchecked power.

But annexation reform is a tough political sell in this state: The North Carolina League of Municipalities lobbies hard on behalf of cities to retain this massive power. The league has vehemently opposed every piece of proposed legislation that would give neighborhoods a voice in forced annexations. And why wouldn’t they?

North Carolina is unusual in the extent to which power is concentrated at the state level. Despite what many people assume, local governments have very little power, and what looks like a local initiative is more often a case of choosing among options A, B or C as served up by state legislators. Each year, the General Assembly is flooded with thousands of bills for consideration, many of them “local resolutions”—in essence, permission slips.

This doesn’t work well at all, however. Cities aren’t given the flexibility to enact and prioritize local revenue sources, spending or even land-use rules. They have to get a green light from Raleigh politicians first, and some of those lawmakers are very reluctant to give up their power. After all, “If one city gets to do it, then they’ll all want to.” And that’s precisely where I believe past attempts to reform forced annexation have failed.

Right now, cities looking to grow and generate revenue feel compelled to use annexation. They see development sprouting up around their borders but cannot collect taxes on those properties, many of which benefit from city life and services.

Property taxes are the only major revenue source local governments are allowed to control. Faced with ever increasing financial obligations in the form of unfunded mandates from the state and federal governments, cities see no option but annexing adjacent residents and businesses, thus increasing their tax base.

But if the General Assembly included new local-revenue options (such as the ability to enact consumption-based taxes) in the annexation-reform legislation, it would let local governments govern locally—what a concept—and cities just might go along.

For those fiscal conservatives who think it would only lead to massive tax increases in the city, I would argue that this way, you’d at least have the chance to vote out Council members who didn’t fit your philosophy on taxation. For those progressive-minded folks who would like to see the city shift its spending priorities, this would provide the means to implement ideas that you believe would improve our community. Meanwhile, those who choose to live beyond the reach of city government could keep their distance. Either way, decisions would be made locally—not in the halls of power down east.

The common thread for all of us to unite around is giving people a say in how government impacts their lives—whether in the city or in surrounding, unincorporated areas. Decisions would be made at the local level without having to ask Raleigh for permission. And the fundamental values of self-determination and freedom to live where you want to, under the government you choose, would be restored in the Tar Heel State.

Just because the General Assembly says that forced, involuntary annexation is legal doesn’t mean it’s right. After all, the British Parliament insisted that what they were doing to the American Colonies was legal and just, but history proved them wrong. How do you think history will look upon North Carolina’s being one of the only places in America that allowed one group of citizens to take away another group’s democratic rights by decree?

This terrible cycle needs to stop now. Cities need to be able to make their own informed decisions about revenue and spending policies, and citizens need to be able to know that they will never be denied a seat at the table of democracy—regardless of whether they live inside the city limits.

[Matt Mittan hosts Take A Stand! on WWNC-AM, Monday through Friday from 3-6 p.m. The show’s Web site is www.MattCave.us; his e-mail address is Matt@WWNC.com.]

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