Annexation and city-county consolidationToday we have an email from Houston Strategies reader Andre, who is from Houston but currently living in central Florida:
I just wanted to get your feedback on how you feel about annexation and what area is next if any. I know both Lee Brown & Bill White dislike the idea of annexation so it won’t happen in years to come, but since annexation is as much a part of Houston as oil, what area do you feel is up for grabs?
Living about 45 minutes outside of Orlando, I see that Orlando is not into annexation, but the surrounding areas are moving fast in land grabs. Jacksonville has annexed its way to being larger than Houston in land size.
Florida is as liberal in its annexation laws as Texas, and it is interesting in seeing how Orlando focuses on its outer fringe (which is where the attractions are) and Jacksonville annexed just to make itself important.
I was researching another idea that has been used by some cities. Consolidation of county and city govts. Nashville and Louisville both have used it to simplify services that overlap such as fire, police, and emergency care. I wonder if Houston & Harris County could or would do that since Houston already take up so much of Harris County land-wise, it would only make sense for the county to completely merge with Houston and integrate city and county services.
I think that this is a painless way for Houston to acquire more unincorporated land and people without dealing with suburbs.
First off, let me say that this is definitely an area outside my expertise. I'm sure plenty of my readers know a lot more than I do about Houston annexation and city-county consolidation possibilities, and I'm hoping they speak up in the comments. That said, here are my uninformed thoughts:
The Kingwood annexation was so traumatic, I think the city has backed away from pursuing annexation as aggressively. They've been cutting deals with various entities inside the ETJ (extra-territorial jurisdiction, i.e. they can't incorporate into their own city) on "limited purpose annexations." I've heard this has actually created some confusion about what should be considered inside and outside the city, since there are now areas getting partial services.
I understand some deal was cut to protect The Woodlands from annexation until 2011. As far as potential annexation targets, The Woodlands would be at the top of the list, along with maybe Cinco Ranch on the far west side (lots of nice tax base). In the future, if commercial development clusters pop up at the intersections of the Grand Parkway and 290, 249 or 45 (as mentioned in an earlier post), I think they'll go after them too, just like they did Willowbrook Mall and the 249/1960 intersection a few years back: nice tax base with few service requirements.
City-county consolidation is a tricky one. I've heard mention of it from time to time, but never any serious discussion. In theory, the consolidation of services is attractive, but I don't know how much savings are really there. I get the impression they do a good job at not wastefully duplicating too much, but I could be wrong on that.
Other city-county mergers I've heard of seem to talk a lot about moving up the city population rankings, and how that will make it easier to attract economic development (because companies don't know how to look at metro area rankings?). Houston would move from 2M to somewhere just above 3M. Harris County has around 3.6M, but many of those are in other cities like Pasadena, Bellaire, Tomball, etc. That would only move us from #4 to #3, passing up Chicago at 2.8M. If LA (3.8M) had actually voted to break up from the San Fernando Valley last year, we could have moved into second place. New York is firmly entrenched at #1 with 8M. Honestly, I don't think it would really raise our profile any higher on the economic development radar.
There's also the problem that some of the city is already across county lines in Ft. Bend. Much of the ETJ extends outside the county and might be lost, including the big Woodlands prize.
But my biggest objection to exploring a city-county merger is political risk. After reading how incredibly disfunctional many, many metro areas are, I've come to appreciate Houston's pretty effective system at both the city and county levels. If we looked at a merger, everything would be up for grabs in the re-design, and odds are we'd end up with a governance structure worse than we have now, in my humble opinion. We also have a reasonably unified, collaborative political class right now, but the power-struggle over unification could be a very ugly civil war that would poison our political environment for many years and have all sorts of negative consequences.
Bottom line: the costs and risks seem to far outweigh the benefits. The simpler solution is for the city and county to keep working together to eliminate duplicative inefficiencies.
(for those who are interested, I will post an old Otis White column on city-county mergers in the comments)