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Off the table

County opposition forces city to scrap annexation plan

News Staff Writer

On September 16, during an informal Atmore City Council workshop, city officials seemed excited about a proposed long-term plan to annex into the city most of the non-residential properties located between downtown Atmore and the Rivercane retail and industrial park, linking the community’s two largest commercial areas.
Now, after Escambia County Commissioners expressed opposition to the plan at their most recent meeting, the annexation plan has been put back on the shelf.
“It’s off the table, gone,” Mayor Jim Staff said of the proposal, which would not have included any residents nor brought any new voters into the city. “We’ll probably revisit it later, but it won’t be anytime soon”.
With the plan’s abandonment goes the anticipated increase in sales tax and property tax revenue that would have come with it.
Currently, any local sales tax money collected within the city’s police jurisdiction is split between the city and county, while the county gets all of the property taxes. If the area is annexed, the majority of sales taxes and all the ad valorem taxes levied in the “new” portion of the city would flow into municipal coffers.
The major bone of contention came from District 3 Commissioner Karean Reynolds, who wrote a letter that he wanted sent to the mayor, to members of the Atmore City Council, to State Sen. Greg Albritton and to State Rep. Alan Baker.
Reynolds said he talked with several business owners, landowners and other residents of the area along Alabama 21 that would be targeted for annexation. He said everyone, with the exception of one business owner who was undecided, were united in their concerns that annexation would run contrary to their respective plans.
“All the business owners that I spoke with were against the annexation, with the exception of (one) who was undecided on the matter,” Reynolds said this week. “I gave both pros and cons of the possible annexation. My goal was not to persuade but to get their input on a topic that could affect them. Other than (the undecided business owner), I don’t recall any of them making a positive statement about the annexation.”
The letter has been turned over to County Attorney Thad Moore Sr. for editing or tweaking, but the commission approved by a 4-1 vote the District 3 rep’s request that county commissioners stand together in opposition to it.
The only dissenting vote came from District 4’s Brandon Smith, who recalled the floating by city officials of a similar annexation plan about 15 years ago. That plan was also scrapped when the people who would be most affected by it refused to support it.
“When Howard Shell was mayor, the city had kicked around the idea of connecting the two areas (Rivercane and downtown),” Smith said. “They backed off for the same reasons.”
He said he had mixed feelings about the letter, which came during the preliminary stages of a lengthy process and which he worries could loosen the bonds of cooperation that have been built between the county and its municipalities.
“I can appreciate Commissioner Reynolds listening to his people, but I do have some concerns about the letter.” Smith said. “His people came to him with their concerns, and he had to bring them to the table. But with annexation, there are so many steps you have to go through before it ever becomes a reality.
“All the municipalities have been supportive of us while we tried to work out our budget problems, and I feel like the letter was premature and could damage some of those relationships. It’s just the timing of it. I voted against it because I didn’t believe the county commission should be involved in a fight when there’s really no fight there yet.”
Reynolds said the people with whom he talked were concerned about a myriad of potential problems, including city zoning ordinances that would limit or interfere with their plans for using their properties.
“I just don’t think the city should attempt to annex entire communities without the input of the residents and business owners,” he said. “The recent proposed annexation map would allow the City of Atmore to govern communities but strategically cut out their homes and exclude them from the process.”
The first-term commissioner, who defeated incumbent David Quarker in 2018, noted that he wasn’t playing politics when he drafted the letter, explaining that he was just doing what the thought he was elected to do.
“I have received overwhelming support from all over the county, especially in the affected area,” he said. “I’m sure there are some who were not pleased. As professionals we all know that we won’t agree on all things, but we must continue to work together to make our communities, cities and county a better place.
“I have a lot of respect for the mayor of Atmore, as we have worked together on several projects over the years. I don’t consider this a political victory; I consider it doing what the people elected me to do, and that is to represent them on matters such as this.”