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Award-winning investigative journalist (and dad) Peter Gorman has spent more than 20 years tracking down stories from the streets of Manhattan to the slums of Bombay. Specializing in Drug War issues, he is credited as a primary journalist in the medical marijuana and hemp movements, as well as in property forfeiture reform. His work has appeared in over 100 national and international magazines and newspapers.
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The Annexation Boom
by Peter Gorman © all rights reserved
“Fortunately,” she adds, “it turned out my daughter was not badly hurt. But at the time it was a nightmare.”
Owens isn’t the only person who has dealth with less than quality city services in some of the far-flung areas that Ft. Worth has annexed since 2000. Last March, 82-year-old Russ Brainard, who lives not far from Owens in north Ft. Worth was at home on Eagle Mountain Lake when he had a stroke. His neighbors called 911, and an ambulance reached him about 15 minutes later. “I guess we’re just a hard address to find,” says Brainard, who’s retired from the automobile business. “Same thing happened to my sister-in-law two or three years ago. Took them about an hour to get to her. It was a heart attack and she died a couple of days later. I don’t know if she would have lived if they’d have gotten her sooner.”
Brainard’s home is at the very end of a section of Eagle Mountain Lake that was annexed by Ft. Worth in early 2,000. “And when annexation occurs,” says State Representative Anna Mowery (?, FT. Worth), “the city promises to provide certain services. Unfortunately, they often don’t.”
“When we had the county ambulance,” says Brainard, “they were within blocks and could get to us in minutes.”
Brainard and Owens aren’t alone in complaining that the city doesn’t always live up to its obligations in terms of services to annexed areas. Other horror stories include fires that the Ft. Worth Fire Department couldn’t find because the annexed areas were new to them and they didn’t know the streets. Again, fortunately, no one has been hurt in any of them. But as recently as three weeks ago a little girl broke her arm near her school in Haslett and the county, city and Haslett city ambulances took more than half-an-hour to figure out whose jurisdiction it was before she was picked up.
“Things like that are not supposed to happen,” says Bob Riley, Director of Development for the City of Fort Worth. “City services, including police, fire, emergency services, roadway maintainance of public buildings and facilities like parks all have to be in place—and up to the quality of services elsewhere in the city—on midnight of the day the annexation takes place. Not one minute later.”
Other services, like city water and sewage, can, by law, take two-and-one-half to four-and-one-half years to be provided to newly annexed areas, he notes. “But you had better be well under way in the two-and-a-half if you plan on asking for more time.”
“The problem,” says Clyde Picht, a former Ft. Worth City Councilman, “is that the city has had no plan when it comes to these annexations. And I think it’s fair to say that the city is certainly and obviously not up to speed with services for the lands it’s annexed.”
Those lands come to over 32-square miles since 2,000. They include slivers of land in Ft. Worth proper and large swaths along 287, on Boat Club Road out by Eagle Mountain Lake and over by the Texas Speedway that have expanded the city deep into areas that were formerly country. Some of the annexations have been tiny enclaves, some have been several square miles. In each case, the city takes over providing services which were formally provided by the county; in return, the city collects taxes and fees and provides city ordinances and codes dictating what can be built, where it can go, and what type of business you can have.
Bob Riley, the Director of Development for Ft. Worth, says the city has a vital interest in annexing. “We’re trying to develop a city that’s growing at a tremendous pace. And by annexing the enclaves within and around the city that are now in the county, we’re trying to assure a plan of development for the city that will make it attractive as it grows.
“One of the things about Texas is that there really are no regulations for land uses outside of a city’s limits. So imagine if someone wants to build a rendering plant right next to the beautiful home you’ve just bought in a new development. If you’re in the county, they can do it. If you were annexed, that wouldn’t happen because we have building codes. Or imagine someone builds a business that causes pollution and they build it next to one of our water supplies. We’d have a polluted waterway. And that is detrimental not only to Fort Worth but to all of the people in the 27 cities that are supplied by our water.”
Mowery says that that sort of thinking is an interesting spin, but not necessarily an accurate one. “A city does need to regulate pollution and dangerous things right outside its limits. But there are generally county and state and federal laws against those things anyway.”
The debate over the pros and cons of annexation, she notes, has been and continues to be the hottest she’s encountered in all her time in politics. “Nothing brings out anger like annexation. And not just in Fort Worth, but all over the state.”
The annexation boom in Ft. Worth began in late 1999, caused, says Riley, by a then-new state law that changed the timetable for annexation. “Traditionally, in Texas, cities could annex areas inside their ETJ, their Extra Territorial Jurisdiction”—an area within and without the city limits that’s determined by population and which is three miles, in Ft. Worth’s case—“within 60-to-90 days. The new law mandated that cities put areas being considered for annexation into a city plan, and then they had to wait a minimum of three years before the actual annexation took place. But the bill gave cities a three year window before it took effect, and I think Fort Worth, because of its tremendous growth rate, decided to take advantage of the old rules as much as they could before the new ones took effect.”
Clyde Picht refers to that period as “annexation frenzy. The city did a study on areas that could be annexed over the next few years and came up with about 50 square miles that went into Johnson County in the south, Parker on the west and Denton and Wise up north.”
The plan, says Picht, drew such anger from people living in the country who didn’t want to be annexed, that it was drastically scaled back. Picht was one of the City Councilmen who drew the line. “Some of that land was going to be tied to the city by nothing more than a thousand foot strip of road in which we could put water and utilities and such. And providing city services to some of those areas was simply going to be too expensive so I didn’t go for a lot of it.”
And he was skeptical that the city could provide good services even to the scaled back areas. “Every time someone on the staff came up with an annexation proposal there was always a note that police and fire stations already existed to cover the new areas. So there was never any money built into the plan for them. In the end, the city wound up with problems in all departments, from code compliance—a huge sore spot with many people whose property is annexed—to development, and that has stressed all of the city’s resources.”
Art Jones, who with his wife Joan is the owner-publisher of the Northwest Tarrant Times-Record and a vociferous opponent of annexation, agrees with Picht. Jones, whose home in a development called The Landing became part of Ft. Worth in 2000 as part of the Lake Country annexation, says the city still has not lived up to its services obligations, despite it being six years since the annexation took place. “Just this year in Lake County a fire truck was sent to a fire that didn’t have a hose long enough to reach the fire from the hydrant. A second truck finally arrived but they lost about four minutes. That’s something that simply didn’t happen with the county volunteer fire department.”
Jones and several others from the annexed Lake Worth area say it’s not just the fire department but the police departments and ambulance services that are not up to speed. “We have fewer police patrolling our streets than we used to have and MedStar is completely overrun.”
Darlia Hobbs, Vice President of Legal Affairs for Citizens Against Forced Annexation (CAFA) isn’t annexed herself, but isn’t far from the area annexed on Eagle Lake. “There are parts of Fort Worth annexed 20 years ago that still are not paved. When the city goes out to annex new areas that they also have to take care of, everyone else that lives in the city gets a smaller piece of the pie and that’s not fair. I don’t know of a single neighborhood that’s been annexed that has gotten the services it was promised, whether it be curbs and sidewalks, policing, waste management, ambulance or fire fighting.”
Hobbs isn’t wrong, at least as far as emergency services are concerned. In 2005, response time by police in north Ft. Worth was an average of 2 minutes and 27 seconds slower than it was within the 820 Loop, averaging 8 minutes and 27 seconds outside the loop compared to 6 minutes and 10 seconds within the loop. A lot of the areas around the loop has been part of Ft. Worth for years, so the study didn’t directly address the recently annexed areas. But FW Police Spokesman Lt. Dean Sullivan did say that “response times are slower in some of the more remote areas that have been annexed that still lack the infrastructure—roads and such—and manpower that the city core has.” Depending on the emergency involved, two-and-a-half minutes might be the difference between life and death.
Calls to MedStar, Ft. Worth’s contracted emergency services and ambulance provider, agreed that the annexations have produced slower response times—and a lesser quality service—than they would like to provide. Jack Eades, a spokesman for MedStar, explained that ambulances are placed in the highest demand areas, frequently at intersections or in gas stations near where they’ve traditionally been most needed. “So while we serve the entire city, we simply don’t have units we can place in areas where there is a low call demand. And that means that if we’re busy in the inner city, our response time to the outlying areas is going to be slower because we don’t post our ambulances in those places.”
Asked why MedStar didn’t buy more ambulances and hire more people, Eades explained that MedStar gets its funding from the fees it charges people who use it. There is a subsidy paid by Ft. Worth, but that only goes to pay part of each service call, as needed, reducing the cost of a call to a patient. “They don’t buy us ambulances, and if we don’t have sufficient calls in an area to justify buying a new ambulance—and hiring new people—then the company isn’t going to do it.”
The fire department, says Hobbs, is also not up to speed in some of the areas that have been annexed. “My home is over 700 feet from the county road,” says Hobbs. “If I have a fire, the county sends in a relay team of tanker trucks which hold 3,500 gallons of water in each. If you sent in a Fort Worth truck to my house you might as well spit on it because their trucks only hold 750 gallons of water.”
According to Lt. Kent Worley, a spokesman for the Ft. Worth Fire Department, there have been problems in annexed areas, particularly for fire and emergency services, but the situation is improving. “The last annexation took place about a year ago on the 287 corridor and the day the annexation went through we had a temporary fire station in place. And we’ve got another one on the North Side that will augment the stations in Alliance and that will open in November—we think. We’re hoping the new stations will cut response time, which has not been what we want in the outlying areas. The reality is that the infrastructure for things like the Fire Department and emergency services simply takes time. We’d like it to be done overnight but that’s simply not the case.”
Worley added that the temporary station on 287 has recently received a 3,000-gallon tanker truck—and the city has a second in the Alliance station to take care of farms and ranches in areas where there is no city water—and may not be for years to come. “And if that’s still not enough water, the county will pitch in. Sometimes they call us and offer their tankers even before we call them.”
It wasn’t always that way. Mike Barton, Fire Chief of the Eagle Mountain Volunteer Fire Department says there was quite a bit of friction between the city and county Fire Department for the first couple of years following annexation. “There were hard feelings at first, but I think we’ve worked that out now. At least on the ground level. Couple of weeks ago, for instance, there were two grass fires in the proximity of a city-county boundary line. The FWFD took one and we took the other, and then when one of them grew we both worked together to put it out.
“But there certainly have been times when there was a question of whose district it is. And Fort Worth will not fight structure fires with the county volunteer department. That’s a city policy they have, I think. But they will help with grass fires, and I believe if it really came to it, nobody would let anything burn to the ground over policy.”
The county has what’s called a mutual aid agreement with several cities that lie within or next to Fort Worth, including Hazlett, Saginaw, Lake Worth among others, whereby their emergency services work together to cover each other’s territory if needed, but it doesn’t have one with Ft. Worth. The reason for that, explains Bob Riley, is because “county buildings are not built to city code, and we’re not going to send our men into a situation like that. We want to save the occupants but don’t want to jeopardize our firefighters either.”
According to Anna Mowery, while cities rarely admit it, one of their key reasons for annexation is to broaden their tax base. “It’s always about the taxes,” she told the weekly.
Bob Riley disagrees, at least in the short term. “A lot of what we annexed was just cow pasture. And a city doesn’t make money from a cow pasture.
Clyde Picht agrees woth Riley. “Initially, the city loses money, at least in underdeveloped areas. In my own development it’s taken six years to build the 500 houses. They’re just finishing the last one. So services have been provided before taxes have been paid. But in the long run, of course, these homes will at least pay for the services they use.
A look at the total value of the land annexed since 2000, when the Lake Country Estates area went through, bears both Picht and Riley out. According to John Marshall, the Chief Appraiser for the Tarrant Appraisal District, since 2000 Ft. Worth has annexed $488 million dollars in property, “after all the homestead exemptions, age exemptions and so forth have been taken from the property value.”
With a tax rate of .865 cents per hundred dollars, in 2006 that $488 million will produce only about $4.2 million in tax revenue this year—hardly a huge sum for a city with a half-a-billion dollar budget.
Tom Higgins, Director of Economic Development for the City of Fort Worth agrees with Mowery that annexation is intended to provide an increased tax base for the city, and also agrees with Riley and Picht that the returns sometimes take time. “When we annex a fully developed area, the new city taxes those people pay generally immediately pay for the services they’ll use. More importantly to the city however, are commercial and industrial areas that we annex. Those are very valuable for a tax base because while they don’t increase the burden to the city services—at least not in the way private home do—they provide substantial increased tax revenue.”
The biggest plum of all, says Higgens, are annexations like the one at Walsh Ranch, where the city, at the request of the ranch’s owners, annexed over 7,000 acres on which more than 14,000 single family homes, as well as schools and commercial property, will be built. “In a case like Walsh Ranch, you’re looking at a tremendous amount of initial investment money coming into the city to build those homes. Then we’ll be getting city tax from those residents. Then there will be the commercial development needed to provide for the needs of that community, and the retail sales tax those people will pay to purchase goods. There will probably be industrial growth outside the Ranch as well, so the city will be looking at a multi-layered tax stream that’s the real payoff.”
For the home or business owner who’s annexed, however, the tax and fees burden the city imposes frequently creates hardship that’s sometimes overwhelming. For Cindy Owens, it cost her home. “The first thing that happened after annexation was that the County Assessor’s office assessed my home considerably higher than it had previously been assessed because I was now in the city, which made it more valuable. When I couldn’t afford to pay the extra thousands of dollars a year in a lump sum I had the new Fort Worth City tax put into my monthly mortgage escrow. But that brought my mortgage up by several hundred dollars a month and I couldn’t afford it. I ended up selling my house because I couldn’t make my mortgage and wound up moving into a tract house that had been built nearby.”
Despite the problems it caused her, Owens likes being in the city now. “I’m still against forced annexation but I think you’ve got to make the best of the situation.”
It’s not just city taxes that are added on to a home or business that gets annexed by the city. Nancy Terrell, a business owner and former member of CAFA, says there are some surprising fees as well. Her business, AHR Trucking and Storage, is in the Hicksville Industrial area, part of the 287 annexation that went into effect last year. Though she hasn’t gotten her tax bill from Ft. Worth yet, she did just get a bill for $400 a month from the Water Department for a storm sewage runoff fee. “We’ve got 17 acres out here and the city computes how much non-permeable ground you have—like rooftops and concrete—and hit me with that. That’s nearly $5,000 a year I’ll be paying and the city doesn’t even run water or sewage out here and won’t for several years. That is a lot for a small business to absorb.”
And when the city does finally run the water and sewage lines, she worries that if her wells and sewage are not up to code she’ll have to pay to run the lines from the street to her buildings, which would run into the high tens of thousands.
“We always felt at CAFA that if the city would work with the people to be annexed it could be done in a way that would be much easier for everyone.”
The Hicksville area Terrell represented with CAFA is an old business section of town, and after annexation the businesses had to bring their buildings and electrical work up to city code. “A lot of people lost their businesses over that coupled with their new taxes and things like storm sewage runoff fees and garbage pickup fees. It was simply too expensive.”
She told the story of one fellow who bought 55-acres not far from her just before annexation. “He had a business plan for a container yard based on county codes and taxes. But after annexation he simply couldn’t afford the new taxes and codes and wound up selling about three-quarters of his land to be able to afford to run his business on what was left.
According to Bob Riley, all existing buildings are grandfathered in when an annexation takes place, “except for anything that could be a major life-safety issue.” He says those can include buildings in bad shape that might injure either inhabitants or city workers called to them; electrical wiring that’s not up to code, contaminated wells, bad septic systems and such.
“Actually,” he says, “I liked the way we annexed that 287 area. By being on our annexation plan we did a limited purpose annexation with the region. That meant that while the residents and businesses paid no taxes to the city and received no services from the city for three years, the city was able to put certain ordinances and building codes in place which affected any new buildings or additions to buildings or work on existing buildings that occurred during that period. So the city had some control over the area. It also gave residents and business three years to get used to the idea of annexation and the city three years to get its services in place—which I think we did in that area.”
During that period Riley says the city did some courtesy inspections in the area and found some major problems—which business owners then had time to rectify. “But people in the country will always give us some grief. They don’t like city rules. They don’t like getting building permits and having engineers and architects involved but they have to under limited purpose annexation regs.”
There are several other issues that crop up with annexation as well, some of which might seem like nothing more than pet peeves to city folk but are real issues with many country people. City residents can’t make bonfires to burn their brush, shoot off fireworks, repair their own septic tanks. They can’t legally shoot an intruder in their home without a licensed gun, or add on to their homes without city inspectors approving their plans.
“Heck, you can’t put a horse down or shoot a rabid coon that’s in your garbage,” says Art Jones. “You have to call the Fort Worth hunting specialists who will do it—for a fee. Technically, you aren’t even allowed to change a water heater in your house within the city limits—you’d have to call a licensed plumber or electrician for that.
“There is a reason people move to the country. They don’t want to be saddled by city rules.”
On the other hand, says Jones, “There’s nothing inherently wrong with annexation if you want to be annexed, like the big Walsh and Bond ranches. What’s wrong is if you don’t want it and it happens anyway. You had no choice, you were just taken over by a city you didn’t want to be a part of and now have to live by the laws and ordinances of that city.”
“What many people don’t understand,” says Riley, “is that no one wants to impose ordinances on anyone else. But the reality is that in the country you have space between buildings so that if you burn your own house up doing your own electrical work or because your bonfire gets out of hand, you burn up. But in an urban setting with buildings closer, your fire is libel to burn the next guy down, too. So the codes and ordinances are in place not just for the city but to protect you as well.”
2005 and 2006 were light years for annexation in Ft. Worth. But forced annexation is not going away: Riley’s department has 20 currently unincorporated neighborhoods both within and without the current city limits being considered for annexation in the next three years, and dozens more in the years folloing. Many of those annexations will generate the same sort of anger and anxiety that earlier annexations have. Anna Mowery doesn’t think it has to be that way.
Mowery, Chairman of the House Committee on Land and Resource Management is often portrayed as an enemy of annexation. She describes herself as simply pragmatic on the issue. During each of the last several legislative sessions she has introduced a bill that would require two votes before an annexation could take place: One by the city wanting to do the annexing, the other by the people who’s homes and business would be annexed. The bill, unfortunately, has never made it to a full vote. It’s been stymied each year by the Calendar’s committee which refuses to schedule it.
Mowery isn’t discouraged. “I’m going to file it again this year,” she told the Weekly recently. “But Calendars won’t schedule it again because the cities in this state don’t like it. I know that. And it’s a good bill, modeled after a very effective annexation law in Arizona.
“But this year I’m planning to file a second bill as well, one that will put teeth into the law that says services must be provided at the same time the annexation goes into effect. In Fort Worth and elsewhere those services are not being provided to everyone. Down in the Fort Hood area people who were annexed are real unhappy with the city over promises that have not been kept. I believe they’ve even sued over that.
“And I think we can enforce that law. I’m not sure what I’ll propose just yet. It might be a moratorium on taxes until the services are provided. It might be a chance to dis-annex or a fine to the city. But something to put real teeth into it. And I don’t think the Calendar Committee will be able to ignore that because the law already exists. It’s just not being enforced.”
“What we’ve got to do,” says Picht, “is get the services up to speed. The city will be adding money for new firemen and police this budget, which is good but is long overdue in some of the annexed areas. Roads, that’s another story. The city has added hundreds of miles of roads not only through annexation but in the existing city itself and not added anything to the budget for those for years.”