Thursday, August 11, 2005

Annexation and city-county consolidation

Today 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)


At 9:48 PM, August 11, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

From Otis White's Urban Notebook at

The Cynicism Factor
Resisting the Urge to Merge

It’s an odd time for folks who favor government consolidation. Never have so many places talked so seriously about city-county mergers, but rarely have so few of these merger proposals actually been approved. Let’s start with the numbers: There are 35 city-county governments in the U.S., according to Suzanne Leland, a professor at the University of North Carolina who studies such things. (Trivia: The first was New Orleans in 1805.) Of these 35 consolidated governments, 20 were created since 1960. Sounds good until you consider that only about 20 percent of consolidation referendums are approved by voters (and only about 15 percent on the first try), and most merger efforts never even make it to a vote. They die under the weight of cynicism, complexity or political opposition. But that doesn’t stop local leaders from talking about mergers. As the Wall Street Journal noted, there are serious consolidation talks underway these days in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Buffalo, N.Y., and several smaller places. In big cities, these merger discussions are usually driven by economics, often a city government that can no longer afford to deliver services to its dwindling population and believes it can do better if it spreads the cost over the entire county. But that’s only one reason consolidations are proposed. The other big reasons: It makes for more efficient government and makes small cities look bigger. Alas, the voters rarely buy these arguments. To understand why, take a look at the effort in suburban St. Louis to merge four small but growing cities into a single 21,000-population city. This wasn’t a city-county consolidation, just an effort to create one middling city out of four miniscule places (the cities were Festus, Herculaneum, Crystal City and Pevely). The argument: By uniting, the cities could save on services and maybe attract more state aid. The idea had a promising start: It was hatched almost exactly a year ago by two of the cities’ mayors. So how far has this proposal traveled in a year’s time? “Really, there hasn’t been anything done about it,” said the mayor of Festus, who was one of the two sponsoring mayors. “There just seemed to be more negative reaction than positive, and at this point it isn’t even talked about.” The mayor of Herculaneum, agreed. “I would not bring it up again,” he said. “There were more people against it than there were people for it, so we’re not really interested any more.” What caused the negative reaction? Some said it was pride in these oddly named communities. Others said it was the fear that a larger city might somehow bring higher taxes. But mostly it was local cynicism. Said one resident: “If the mayor of Festus wants to lead the good people of ’Herky,’ Pevely or Crystal City, then he should resign as mayor of Festus and run for office in their fine towns.”

Posted March 1, 2005

At 9:16 AM, August 12, 2005, Blogger John Whiteside said...

On a more abstract level - getting the government structures in line with the actual functioning "city/metro area" makes sense. I came to Houston from DC, at the opposite end of the spectrum, where spats between the District, 2 states, and all kinds of country and cities make regional planning pretty much impossible. An "everything from slightly outside the Beltway" government would make that place work much better, and avoid some of the endless city vs suburbs stuff that is refreshingly absent here.

Didn't a number of Canadian cities form larger metro governments a few years ago? I'm pretty sure Montreal and Toronto have done this.

At 12:07 PM, August 12, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In Baton Rouge, the City of BR annexed everything in the parish that wasn't already in the towns of Baker and Zachary. Those two remain independent cities, but BR has taken to calling itself the "City-Parish" although the parish technically doesn't exist as an entity anymore.

I'm not sure what would happen to the pieces of Houston outside Harris County if the two were consolidated. The state constitution mandates 4 county commissioners no matter what, so what happens to them?

My main complaint (living in the City) is that I pay City AND County taxes, but the County only spends money in the unincorporated areas and in non-Houston cities like Pasadena. Why do I pay County taxes when they dump all the responsibilities on the City? In Washington state, by contrast, you don't pay county taxes if you're inside a city. It's one or the other, not both.

At 12:53 PM, August 12, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dave -

The Harris County government certainly does spend money within the City of Houston. For example, think about all of those flood control projects. Those are County projects. The County also has parks within the city limits. Over in my neck of the woods, Bayland Park is a County park, and the trails along Brays Bayou are a County recreational facility. And there are all of those County court buildings downtown... you get my point.

At 5:45 PM, August 12, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A note on Houston annexation and why it won't happen for the foreseeable future: The Voting Rights Act.

Mind you, this is up for renewal in 2007 and the team in power may tweak a few items, this one among them.

But basically, you cannot annex beyond a certain degree that dilutes minority populations. As of the Kingwood/Clear Lake fiascos, Houston pretty much hit that legal wall. Not sure on the mathematical particulars of this, but this is usually among the first among the bill of particulars whenever major metro annexations happen.

The factors that tend to ease that stipulation are the fact that minority population growth is higher than the Anglo population in most cities. So, theoretically, you'd reach a point where you could annex based on an allowable level of dilution. Still, that's a slow road travelled before you reach a point where you can safely annex another major suburban exurb like Kingwood or others.

Typically, for the conservative/GOP side, there's a conflicting desire: on the one hand, they'd like to see some major cities like Houston gain more GOP voters through annexation. But they also are more likely to represent the very suburban areas that have settled where they are in order to NOT BE part of the annexing city.

The flip side of that applies to the Dem/liberal side ... why dilute what you perceive as "your vote" when the incoming precincts are decidedly more crimson than what you already have?

Tax base or no, I've never been of the opinion that you annex residential areas much for that reason. Most of the annexation done along those lines involves minor boundary annexation that puts a strip center or a shopping mall in city boundaries. Even that, I'm not sure how much goes on anymore (my reference here dates me to the early 90s with a city official speaking to my Government class at UH-D).

At 10:50 AM, August 13, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Andrew - not so sure on that one. The city has a lot of undeveloped land in the south of the county, yet developers are skipping over it to go to Brazoria.

At 8:24 PM, August 13, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I have heard that permitting and utilities are easier in Brazoria, but I'd like to hear from more knowledgable readers if they're out there.

At 9:40 PM, August 13, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At least for Shadow Creek Ranch, which is almost entirely in Brazoria County, the TIRZ made it an attractive place for development. But my knowledge of Brazoria County is otherwise limited.

And I know this next comment is going to be controversial for some in this forum, but a lot of developers leap outside of Houston in part to be IN a zoned area, or at least a master-planned area. Pearland in Brazoria County has zoning. (other cities in our metro area with zoning include Sugar Land, Missouri City, Katy, Friendswood, Nassau Bay, and League City). I've had elected leaders in Fort Bend County say to me that part of what makes the cities in their County competitive is zoning and planning, which they contrast with the particularly ugly sprawl of SW Houston on the Harris County side of the county line.

At 9:50 PM, August 13, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

One man's zoning and planning is another man's bland sterility.

One man's ugly unplanned/unzoned sprawl is another man's vibrant entrepreneurial diversity.

It seems good to have a balance of each.

At 7:16 AM, August 15, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about land prices in Brazoria County? I think land five minutes farther away might be a lot cheaper and easier to assemble in to big tracts than a lot of what is in the Southern part of the county.
I think this is pretty much the controlling interest for developers, because it is a much bigger portion of the cost of development than utilities.

At 2:48 PM, August 15, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Ahhh, so it's a floodplain problem. Thanks for clearing that up kjb. It'll be nice to get some southside development to balance out the west and north.


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