Annexations bills up for debate in Tennessee General Assembly

photo The Tennessee Capitol
Arkansas-Tennessee Live Blog

NASHVILLE - City annexations across most of Tennessee, including current efforts by Collegedale, would be stopped dead in their tracks for up to 27 months under bills scheduled for final consideration this week in the General Assembly.

The bills are a compromise from initial plans by Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, to require voter consent before cities could annex territory.

After cities and their lobbyists objected fiercely to the original bill, the legislation now blocks annexations of unwilling property owners while a comprehensive study of Tennessee annexation laws is conducted by June 30, 2015.

The bill's effects are back-dated to April 1 to block cities such as Collegedale, which in February began annexing dozens of properties in response to the original bill.

Efforts to reach Collegedale Mayor John Turner and city officials on Friday were unsuccessful. Top officials with the Tennessee Municipal League, which lobbies for towns and cities, also could not be reached Friday.

Watson's bill is up for consideration this afternoon on the Senate floor. He said he's not sure whether he will move on it or wait to see what happens to Carter's bill in the Calendar and Rules Committee, the last hurdle before hitting the House floor.

Carter, a freshman lawmaker, has been driving the legislation, adjusting it to accommodate legislative critics.

"Things look good," said Carter, an attorney who was a top assistant to former Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey, now Gov. Bill Haslam's deputy.

"I think we're going to make it to the floor, and I think we're going to win the vote on the floor," he said, adding that little differences in the House and Senate bills would need ironing out.

Carter's amended bill includes the moratorium but only for residential and farm properties, not commercial properties. The study would be conducted by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.

The bill has its origins in Chattanooga's recent annexation efforts. Carter said he and Ramsey managed to stop three annexations by Mayor Ron Littlefield, but seven others went through.

All were within Chattanooga's urban growth boundary created under a 1998 state law aimed at providing for orderly growth rather than simply revenue-snatching land grabs.

"One thing I've learned through this is that there are many cities that provide all the utilities in the area," Carter said. "I don't want this bill to hurt cities that are doing a good job in providing all utilities and are very rare to annex."

Watson said cities should have to persuade people why it's in their best interest to be annexed.

"I know it's a difficult argument ... to make. But I think that's the right thing to do," he said.

He and other critics say Tennessee is one of just three states where cities can annex by ordinance.

City officials are making decisions affecting people who had no voice in electing them, Watson said. "[It's] taxation without representation."

Watson said he thinks Collegedale officials may be backing off the annexations in light of the controversy.

Littlefield, who leaves office today, said last week the city's annexations "are all resolved."

"That [bill] will affect Collegedale and some of the smaller cities more than the city of Chattanooga," Littlefield said.

"I still think it's an unwise act of the legislature to rein that in," he said, adding that the proposed law would tie new Mayor Andy Berke's hands "to a degree."

Carter said he's heard plenty of complaints from families who moved to unincorporated areas to escape the city and its higher taxes. He contends some incorporated areas have gone decades without the services promised when they were annexed.

Hamilton County Commission Chairman Larry Henry agreed, noting that county commissioners passed a resolution in support of the voting requirement.

People should have a vote on whether to join the city, said Henry, who recalled his family's property being annexed in 1973.

"I went to bed one night in Hamilton County and woke up the next morning still in Hamilton County but living in the city of Chattanooga," he said.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfree or 615-255-0550.