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Annexation approved – Objectors consider rehearing request

In an earlier-than-anticipated development, the MississippiSupreme Court Thursday approved Brookhaven’s annexation that willalmost triple the city’s current size and add approximately 3,000people to its population.

“This is five to six months prior to when we thought it wouldbe,” said Mayor Bob Massengill.

Massengill said he had spoken with Jerry Mills, the attorney whorepresented the city during the annexation trial that was held inlate 2003 and early 2004, and expected to know more about cityexpansion-related issues early next week. City offices were closedFriday in observance of Good Friday and Easter.

The mayor said he has scheduled a meeting with department headsfor Tuesday morning to discuss annexation-related issues. Althoughthe ruling came earlier than expected, Massengill said the citywill be prepared to move forward.

“We’re excited to have these folks come into the city and we’regoing to do our best to make them proud to be part of the city,”Massengill said.

Massengill said the annexation would help the city withpopulation, sales taxes and in other areas.

“We’re going to try to give them the best we have to offer,” themayor said.

Sandra Gerald, spokeswoman for Citizens Against Annexation, thegroup that appealed the initial ruling, said she learned of thedecision around 2 p.m. and had been in contact with fellowobjectors. She said Thursday was “a very sad day.”

“We’re very disappointed, not surprised,” Gerald said.

Recalling the familiar phrase, “You can’t fight city hall,”Gerald said the trend seems to be courts approving annexations.

“I think that’s wrong,” Gerald said. “The Legislature needs tolook at law governing annexation.”

Citing his conversation with Mills, Massengill said objectorshave 14 days to petition for a rehearing before the Supreme Court.Otherwise, the annexation will be official May 6 and the city willneed to start providing services to the annexed areas soonthereafter.

Massengill said the annexation would be put on hold in the eventa rehearing is pursued. Gerald was unsure about the details of therehearing procedure, but said objectors were looking at theiroptions.

Annexation would boost the city’s population from 9,861 toalmost 13,000 people, according to totals presented following thechancery court trial ruling.

In terms of land size, the 14.4 square-mile approved annexationarea will almost triple the city’s current 7.3 square miles to 21.7square miles. In the trial, the city had sought a 16.6-square milearea, but some portions were deleted by Judge John C. Ross Jr., whowas appointed to hear the case after 15th District Chancery CourtJudge Ed Patten recused himself.

In discussing the ruling, Gerald mentioned the feelings andreactions from her fellow objectors.

“Some are angry, but we all love Brookhaven,” Gerald said.

Gerald said many in her group chose to live outside the city inthe county for their personal reasons.

“I just hate it for people that depend on their land to make aliving,” Gerald said.

She said strides had been made more recently to improve cityservices that will now have to be provided to the new cityresidents.

“I still do not feel they’re ready for us,” Gerald said.

Like Massengill, Gerald said she was surprised at the timing ofthe ruling. She said the annexation file was huge.

“I do feel it deserved more attention than it got,” Geraldsaid.

City Attorney Joe Fernald also mentioned the quickness of theruling. He said city officials were expecting the decision aroundAugust.

“We think the speed with which they affirmed shows how valid the(chancery court) ruling was,” Fernald said.

In the 14-page decision, written by Justice Oliver Diaz, thestate Supreme Court determined Brookhaven’s annexation wasreasonable under the 12 indicia of reasonableness establishedthrough previous annexation cases.

The court said the appeal was unusual in that the objectors hadadmitted they favor annexation, rather it was a case of “NIMBY” -Not In My Back Yard – on the part of objectors. The court said thegroup, Citizens Against Annexation, was misnamed because of theiradmittance to favoring annexation.

In discussing annexation reasonableness, the ruling said the CAAconceded five of the indicia. Those involved the presence ofpotential health hazards in the proposed annexation area, thecity’s financial ability to provide services to the proposedannexation area, the existence of no natural barriers to limitannexation, past performance of the city in previous annexationsand the minimal impact on minority voting strength.

Currently, the city’s population is 51.4 percent black and 1.1percent non-white. Following the annexation, the black populationwill to be 50.2 percent while the non-white population percentagewill not change.

Massengill briefly discussed voting issues Thursday. Cityofficials have been working with consultant Mike Slaughter todevelop new ward lines for city elections.

“Obviously, the Justice Department has an interest and will haveto approve a redistricting plan,” the mayor said.

Among other indicia of reasonableness, the high court said needto expand, path of growth, need for zoning and planning, need formunicipal services in the proposed annexation area and economicimpact on annexation area residents issues all ran in favor of thecity.

Barring an appeal, Fernald said there was a “timing issue” onwhether the city could collect property taxes for this year on thenewly annexed areas.

With the ruling not expected until later in the year, Massengillsaid property taxes were not an issue, but the quickness of theruling meant that would now have to be looked at again. He pointedout that annexation area residents are already paying county andcity school taxes.

Regarding the matter of annexation area residents enjoying thebenefits of the city without paying their fair share, sometimescalled “free riders,” the Supreme Court said that issue fallsheavily in favor of the city.

In discussing that issue and the matter of whether city servicesare needed in the proposed annexation area (PAA), the court pointedout the extension of city water and services into the area in thepast, a police force that is larger than the sheriff’s department’sstaff, and 108 calls that the fire department responded to in thearea over a five-year period. The ruling also mentioned a city firestation that is located outside the city in the PAA.

“The PAA clearly needs city services, and Brookhaven is in aposition to provide them,” the court said.

The court said Brookhaven’s annexation situation was differentfrom Jackson’s in that Brookhaven had already “extended municipalservices well beyond its boundaries without recompense.”

“We do not pass judgment on whether this was economicallyadvisable on behalf of the city, but not that the (Citizens AgainstAnnexation) simply does not want to pay for the services which italready receives free,” the court said.

Massengill said decision statements regarding “free riding” werea bit strong. He said city officials want to promote unity andharmony with residents in the annexation area.

“I don’t think it serves any purpose to put any kind of label ona group of people,” the mayor said. “Certainly, those who objectedhad every right to object.”

Regarding any other factors to justify reasonableness of arequested annexation, the court rejected an appeal invitation tomake the city quantify the degree of purported urbanization in thePAA. The issue involves justifying an annexation when there arelarge areas of vacant, timber or agricultural land proposed to betaken into the city.

“Our paramount concern in annexation continues to be whether theannexation is reasonable,” the court said. “Until such time as theLegislature sees fit to codify or formalize another process we willdecline to create any other requirements for annexation.”