Senate panel amends de-annexation bill over Watson's objections

Senate panel amends de-annexation bill over Watson's objections

March 29th, 2016 by Andy Sher in Politics State

Commissioner Sabrena Turner-Smedley

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE - A Hamilton County commissioner and two Chattanooga residents today testified in favor of a de-annexation bill, telling a panel of state senators they received virtually no new services when the city annexed them years ago.

Commissioner Sabrena Turner-Smedley told State and Local Government Committee members, who are reconsidering the controversial measure, former Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield embarked on an "annexation spree" back in 2009 and 2010 to cover up city revenue shortfalls and pump up the city's population in advance of the U.S. Census.

The commissioner described how as a realtor she got "apprehensively involved" and became a board member of an anti-annexation group, Hamilton County Residents Against Annexation, which raised $200,000 and "stopped this train they were driving" at that point.

During today's meeting, State and Local Government Committee members approved a number of amendments to the bill, sponsored by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, which would allow residents of areas annexed beginning in 1998 to push referendums allowing them to vote to secede from cities.

Watson called several of them "hostile" to his intent.

A final committee vote was delayed until Wednesday. The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, has already passed the lower chamber but ran into problems in the Senate and was driven from the Senate floor back to committee for further consideration.

The new amendments were seen as more favorable to cities and vehemently opposed by Watson. For example, one raised the percentage of voters' signatures required to force a referendum vote from the 10 percent requirement in the House bill to 20 percent.

Another change opposed by Watson would allow cities to continue taxing de-annexed property owners for a proportional share for public employee retirement obligations incurred while residents were in a city.

The bill already required would-be departing residents to continue paying property taxes for general obligation bonds issued by cities during their time their. On the issue of their having to continue to pay for worker pension and other retirement benefits paid for out of regular spending, Watson said it was unfair and charged it amounts to their paying taxes twice.

Watson's bill now includes all cities. In an effort to get his version passed, Carter Carter's bill limited the impact to just five cities the bill charged had engaged in "egregious" behavior. 

Those cities were Chattanooga, Memphis, Knoxville, Kingsport and tiny Cornersville in Middle Tennessee. 

It's unclear whether Watson has sufficient support to pass the bill in the Senate committee or on the Senate floor. And even if he does, the House could balk at re-inserting all 350-plus Tennessee towns and cities back into the bill.

Last week, opponents of the bill, including Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke of Chattanooga, testified against the bill. Today, anti-annexation proponents of Watson's bill testified.

Bill Reesor, who lives in the Ramsgate development in Hixson, told lawmakers "I can tell you of people who've lost their home after their taxes doubled."

Also testifying was Jim Chastain, a resident of North Hixson. Both Reesor and Chastain are members of Hamilton County Residents Against Annexation, which formed to oppose former Mayor Littlefield's annexations.