A Question about ‘De-Annexation’: What is the value of a city?

A Question about ‘De-Annexation’: What is the value of a city?

At a recent candidate debate (yes, in my city, the election season has not yet ended . . . alas!), the moderator asked the candidates if they would support or pursue “de-annexation” of an area of the city that long has grumbled about not getting its fair share and about their tax dollars funding the ambitions of “downtown interests.”

De-annexation? Seriously? Can you even do that?

It turns out that you can.

I’m not a lawyer, let alone a specialist in Chapter 171.051, Florida Statutes, but it would appear  that contraction (the legal term for de-annexation) only is an option if the area to be “de-annexed” fails to meet the criteria for annexation.  Some of these are about population density. A City of Detroit scenario, with massive outmigration from specific neighborhoods, might cause an area, once suitable for annexation, to no longer meet the density criterion, for example. The rest are about geography and development/planned development, things that, if they ever were true (so that the area could appropriately become part of the city in the first place), they probably remain true. Not promising for those wishing to break off on their own.

Even if the area fails to meet the annexation criteria in Chapter 171.043, Florida Statutes, the path is not yet clear. Ultimately, the city council must agree to calling for a referendum (either on its own initiative or at the behest of at least 15% of the qualified electors of the area under consideration). And it would appear, from the language of the statute, that the council is free simply to say “no,” even if residents petition for the contraction.

So was it worth asking the candidates if they would support contraction? Probably not.

Of course, this also is what we’ve gotten used to in debates, and it worked just as it has in presidential debates and others up and down the ballot. The question provoked one of the more strident interactions of the evening and, as a result, generated press.

I would argue that the underlying premise of the question, and not just the plausibility of the topic arising in practice, was and is in doubt.

The underlying premise was that each segment of a city, each neighborhood, ought reasonably to assess its relationship to the city in terms of the direct return to them and their area from their tax and fee investment.

While we can debate the merits of public investments in downtown areas and entertainment districts for the well-being of the citizens of the city as a whole, we ought not to get drawn into such narrow thinking either about self-interest or about the role of cities.

My interests as a resident of a city are not measured simply by how much tax I pay and how much direct service I get back. I may never have a need for a police officer to visit my home, but my personal safety is better secured by the presence of police in my city. I may never need a fire engine or a paramedic ambulance to preserve my home or my life, but I am much better off for the fact that there is a fire department on which I could call should I ever need it.

Beyond these benefits, indirect but clear, are other subtler ways cities make the lives of residents better. Some cities’ investments in downtown amenities or entertainment districts or business incubators or arts or athletic facilities drive employment, both directly and indirectly. Some such investments return revenue directly to the city’s coffers as well, allowing the city to provide expanded services to residents or reduce the cost to them of essential services.

Then there’s this thing called community.

Living in a specific location doesn’t make one a part of a community in an era of home entertainment and virtual everything. Where once the neighborhood was the foundation of community identity, today it tends simply to be an address.

Forging community, however, is essential to the interests of residents and even business owners. Some sense of “belonging” is necessary for our psychological stability, and some real-world, physically present and proximate support is a strong bulwark against the isolation that can lead to both physical and psychological problems.

Cities, by their investments in neighborhoods, by the programs and venues they provide, help build those community connections . . . or at least they can.

Even here, dollar-for-dollar return is not the point. My neighborhood may have forged its own community identity and not need help from the city to sustain it. Another neighborhood may need considerable assistance. I’ll still benefit from that disproportionate investment. I am better off if each neighborhood in my city is effectively woven into the fabric of community. It keeps the peace, for one, and improves the overall quality of life as well.

Governments tend to play a redistributive role in our society; it’s part of why we have them. We ought not to measure the value of our investment in our city by how many dollars are spent directly on us, but by how much better our community is because of our investment.