Annexation by any other name…

By John Peters

June 4, 2014

It’s ironic that the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners has decided to enforce a proposed Municipal Services District annexation on a number of city property owners.

Yes, we understand a vote has not yet taken place, but most everyone knows this expansion has been a done deal for months, essentially ever since the MSD told the board it wanted to forcibly take in the additional land.

And an annexation is exactly what this is.

Which is strangely ironic since the past couple of times the city has been involved in annexations the results have been exercises in chaos and frustration.

The city annexed the Hollyview Forest and Sandy Level subdivisions in 2007 and Cross Creek and Laurel Cove subdivisions a year later, despite widespread opposition by the then-county residents. The city commissioners at that time decided they really had no interest in the views and opinions of their constituents or would-be constituents, and the commission was going to do whatever it darn well pleased.

Mount Airy has been beset by problems over these annexations. A number of property owners found their yards and driveways torn up as the city put in water and sewer lines, and that land in some cases was left in that condition for years, despite repeated requests by property owners to clean up the mess. Those requests fell on deaf ears at city hall, and the situation was only remedied by the city after The Mount Airy News reported on the issue.

Even now, six and seven years after the respective annexations took place, a number of residents in those areas have refused to hook onto the city water and sewer systems despite the city’s mandatory hook-up policy. As recently as April city commissioners were still wrestling with this issue, and quite frankly have left Mount Airy wide open for legal action by those who did follow city code, at considerable personal expense, only to find others have been allowed to retain their own wells and septic tanks.

Some of the commissioners involved in that annexation even lost their jobs, replaced by a few of the present-day board members. These current members came into office criticizing the annexations and the manner in which the board seemed to put itself above the law and the residents it was supposed to support. These board members promised to be more responsive to the residents of Mount Airy and not run roughshod over them as the previous board had done. They promised to be public servants, not politicians or pawns to be manipulated by business interests in the city.

Which makes this Municipal Services District annexation proposal all the more puzzling.

Eighteen property owners will see their property forcibly taken into the district, including residential properties, non-retail establishments such as banks, and parking lots. Their taxes will skyrocket, jumping by more than 40 percent.

And most disturbing, the MSD is not directly accountable to those property owners. One could argue not even indirectly accountable. The property owners have no real say in who is elected to the 10-member board of directors which runs the MSD— the MSD is governed by Mount Airy Downtown Inc., a private non-profit the city allows to govern the MSD. The bylaws of the MSD say the board of directors get to choose who will be on the board of directors.

That is no misprint — the board of directors, dominated by some of the same names that serve on the new Redevelopment Commission, Downtown Business Association, and other retail-oriented interests, get to decide who will serve on that very board. That would be roughly akin to Congress choosing who serves in Congress, or the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners choosing who gets to serve on the board of commissioners, leaving the tax-paying voters entirely out of the equation.

That would be outrageous, of course. Then again, this present board of commissioners has become increasingly shady in its actions, and very little that it does surprises us any longer.

As reported by The Mount Airy News’ Tom Joyce, this group has gone into closed session more than 70 percent of the time it has gathered this year, generally under the dubious justification.

After requesting information regarding these closed sessions, The Mount Airy News learned this board has met in closed session to discuss either the MSD expansion, the creation of the city’s new redevelopment commission, and to purchase most of the former Spencer’s Inc. property on at least eight times between Feb. 20 and May 15. At least three of those meetings included discussion on all three items. At least six of those meetings included discussions on two of those issues.

Many, if not all, of those closed-door meetings included not only the commissioners, City Manager Barbara Jones and City Attorney Hugh Campbell, but they included some of the same representatives from local private businesses who run Mount Airy Downtown Inc., who help run the Downtown Business Association, and who have been appointed to the redevelopment commission.

Conspicuously absent from all of those discussions have been the public, which in Mount Airy no longer seems to be part of the governing process.