UPDATE: Yesterday afternoon the state Senate voted to send the controversial deannexation bill back to commitee for further review. It could be up for a full vote again later this week.
In a rare move, Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero and all but one member of the City Council have authored a letter opposing a state bill that would allow residents in a handful of Tennessee cities, including Knoxville, to vote on leaving the city and becoming part of the surrounding unincorporated county. In fact, the city opposes this deannexation bill so staunchly it even underlined “strongly opposes” in its letter to state lawmakers to drive home its message.
“This is an unfortunate example of legislation being considered and rushed through the process without sufficient understanding of its implications and consequences,” the city’s letter reads. “Any floor vote should be delayed until its full impact is known by the committee of jurisdiction over these issues, and also by those citizens who may choose to deannex and those who would choose to remain in the City of Knoxville.”
The Tennessee House of Representatives passed the bill last week with a 68-25 vote. The state Senate is scheduled to vote on it sometime this afternoon, Monday, March 21. City Councilman Nick Pavlis, who works as a lobbyist, abstained from signing the letter citing conflict of interest concerns.
Knoxville spokesman Jesse Mayshark says the bill could affect 368 properties in Knoxville, most all scattered around the periphery of the city, though officials have not yet put together a comprehensive map of all those properties. He says this is the first time in at least four years that Mayor Rogero has solicited signatures from City Council members in opposition to a state bill (earlier this year City Council did pass a resolution in support of Insure Tennessee).
As written, House Bill 776 would allow residents annexed into a city since 1998 to hold a referendum and vote on leaving the city. It would only impact residential properties. Concerns over the bill center on potential issues with providing public services to residents that choose to deannex, and if residents that might choose to deannex would still be liable for a portion of debt accumulated by the city during the period they were part of the city. As written, the city would have no so say in the matter.
The bill specifically targets six Tennessee cities, so it would only apply to those municipalities and not others: Knoxville, Memphis. Chattanooga, Kingsport, Johnson City, and Cornersville (a small town in Marshall County with a population of about 1,200). Some have questioned whether it’s constitutional to have a state law that applies to some cities and not others.
It used to be that city councils could vote on annexing an area or neighborhood into the city limits without any say from the residents, but state legislators put a stop to that in 2014. Now residents that would be affected must also approve. Knoxville in the past has annexed areas with a majority vote from City Council, but it hasn’t forced any annexations in more than a decade.
Gov. Bill Haslam has expressed concern over the bill, encouraging local cities across the state to make their voices heard on the matter. Haslam is a former mayor of Knoxville. And for what it’s worth, the News Sentinel’s editorial board has also come out against it. Read the city’s letter here.
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