You may be familiar with the “cityhood” movement in Atlanta. Much of suburban Atlanta was traditionally unincorporated. But there have been a series of incorporations of new suburban municipalities, something that has been controversial.
Now some places are taking it to the next level and seeking to secede from existing municipalities in order to form a new one. Breaking apart a municipality brings all sorts of issues into play, especially financial ones, and most especially if the communities have bonded debt. Ratings agencies are keeping an eye on the situation.
A similar situation recently arose in Tennessee, where some legislators were trying to pass a law that would allow residents of cities to de-annex territory on their own initiative. Naturally municipalities were alarmed by this.
But interestingly, the mayor of Memphis agrees that de-annexation is a good idea for his city. He (of course) believes the city should drive the process rather than residents. There are several areas he has targeted for de-annexation, largely undeveloped:
For years, Memphis gobbled up land through a process known as “annexation,” more than doubling the city’s area. Mayor Jim Strickland says providing services like public transportation and law enforcement within this sprawl is an expensive challenge.
“Memphis grew, actually from the very beginning 200 years ago, by annexing,” Strickland said at an event here on Wednesday. “The days of annexation are over and we’ve now paid a price. We have no density and it’s really hard to deliver services.”
I’m reminded of what Cincinnati mayor John Cranley had to say when I recorded a podcast with him back in 2014:
There’s a real cultural shift and renewed pride in Cincinnati. More specifically though, there are some unique advantages that we have. Think of it this way: if you took our Downtown and Uptown and the corporate base, let’s say it’s 70% of all of our major jobs and income taxpayers. If you take the same exact area and map it in Columbus, they’re going to have 70% of their companies Nationwide, et cetera, all within the same geographic area. The difference is that they have to spread that money among all of Franklin County. We have to provide for 300,000 people. And very quality 19th century historic neighborhoods that already have a sense of place and culture. And we get the benefit of, on a per capita basis, being able to invest way more in these urban neighborhoods than any of our peers because we didn’t annex.
Now, historically, the attitude of urbanists had been, like myself, the we’ve got to have metro government. In essence, the attitude has been, “We poor city.” We need you guys have to play Robin Hood for us. I think the shift is already underway. Now, we have more work to do but the shift is already underway that we’re going to be a better choice for the dollar value because of our historic infrastructure, our density, our diverse economies of scale.
This isn’t an argument for de-annexation, but it is an argument for thinking geographically smaller.
Back in the day you used to hear about quixotic secession movements by places like Staten Island or the San Fernando Valley. These largely seemed to disappear. The conventional wisdom on governance was towards bigger boxes: city-county consolidation, regional councils, expansive annexations, etc.
That model remains popular, but I’ve started seeing signs people are thinking differently about it. Interestingly, both residents and mayors can think that small is beautiful, though may have different incentives.
A lot of states allow de-annexation, but I rarely observe it in practice. But I’ll be keeping an eye out to see if this turns into a trend.