Saturday, July 24, 2004



By Anna B. Brutzman

It's called extortion by some; a necessary tool by others.

Some cities across the state extend their utility services to residents or developers in exchange for annexation of their property. It is a way to grow in a state where the law is unfriendly to annexation.

Columbia does it, Spartanburg does it and Georgetown does it, among other municipalities, according to Municipal Association Director Howard Duvall. Easley and Greer don't.

Greenville doesn't annex properties outright through its water system, but it has begun recently requiring new water customers within a mile of the city to sign off on being annexed later if the city so desires.

City officials insist that targeting areas for annexation is crucial for the city's financial health, which everybody in the region benefits from.

But the impact on residents can include higher taxes, higher insurance rates and confusion over which agency is providing services. Fire protection, in particular, is an essential service that about 30 special fire districts provide in Greenville County.

"Our concern was that we could not use county Community Development Block Grant funds to do any work with development if there was a potential for annexation," said Martin Livingston, whose Greenville County Redevelopment Authority takes sagging neighborhoods and rebuilds them using federal money.

He said the authority halted work on its $15 million redevelopment of Brutontown, a neighborhood just outside the city line on Rutherford Road, when officials realized the area could get annexed.

Mayor Knox White said the City Council intends to pass a resolution exempting Brutontown from annexation.

But the city does hope to annex sites in developing areas, especially along interstates 385 and 85 — a move that threatens several fire districts whose leaders don't want to see valuable property-tax revenue move over to the city.

"Cities have a natural need to grow to protect their tax base," White said.

The result has been a turf war over fire protection and other services historically provided by special purpose districts.

Wade Hampton Fire District Chief Gary Downey recalls how his fire and sewer was formed back in the 1950s.

"The wells were running dry. People didn't have adequate water," he said. "Nobody wanted to have anything to do with them because the tax base wasn't there."

State Sen. Mike Fair of Greenville County has introduced legislation several times to prevent municipalities from using their utility services to expand boundaries into now valuable areas. The previous bills failed to pass.

"I did and do think it's legal extortion," he said.

Municipalities have invested millions of dollars into utility systems and should expect to be able to grow, according to Duvall.

The Greenville Water System's 145,000 customers, 80 percent of whom are outside the city, make it the largest city-owned water system in the state.

"Without infrastructure, the sand hills around Columbia would still be sand hills," Duvall said.

Residents shouldn't object to cities trying to stay financially healthy through expansion, he said, because they tend to be the economic engines of an entire region.

Greenville County resident Cliatt Alewine, who also is chairman of the Boiling Springs Fire District Commission, said he can't think of any suburb of the county that doesn't already receive urban services such as water, sewer and fire protection through special districts.

"What can they offer us except higher taxes?" he said of Greenville annexation.

Greer has expanded dramatically over the past 10 years, tripling in size, according to Greer Public Works Director Jerry Balding, and it has done so without requiring water customers to be annexed. As the city's boundaries have expanded, so has his department's 15,500-strong customer base.

"Our success is tied to the city of Greer and their success," Balding said.

Boiling Springs Fire Chief Gerald Luker expects to see his revenue go down by thousands of dollars when several portions of his district go under Greer's jurisdiction in 2010 — an arrangement that gives the department time to pay off a loan. His fire district also abuts areas targeted for annexation by Greenville, he said.

"Naturally, that will be a big impact as far as adding additional personnel," he said.

His department's $2.5 million budget covers equipment and salaries for 37 full-time firefighters at three fire stations. He also works with about 20 volunteers.

Its three-minute response times, professional firefighters and up-to-date equipment have earned the district a good insurance rating, something Luker fears might not follow residents once they fall under city jurisdiction.

While the city of Greenville's expansion has been more piecemeal, the approximately 20 properties it has annexed near I-385 is making the Wade Hampton Fire District nervous, according to its spokesman, Taft Matney.

"I think it's a very grave concern to Wade Hampton," Matney said. "The question is ultimately safety."

Like Luker, Matney questioned whether properties annexed into Greenville would get as quick a response from city firefighters.

He said the city of Greenville also is supposed to compensate the fire district for some of its lost revenue and come up with a plan for fire protection.

"Wade Hampton Fire District has made numerous attempts to contact the city of Greenville and so far has received no response form the city to devise any plan," he said.

He and Luker were open to the idea of continuing to provide service within the city limits. "The way I see it, if you already have service in place, why not leave it in place?" Luker said.

That is an option open to cities, the municipal association's Duvall said.

Fair said overlapping services is a problem in South Carolina and suggested that a public vote by residents on who they want providing their services might be an answer.

He said countywide consolidation of services, like in Mecklenburg County, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla., might also work.

"No one seems to be asking the question of what's best for taxpayers," he said.



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