City Council’s vote on annexation on Sept. 8 will either heighten or appease the worry and frustration of the more than 10,000 residents of Alamo Ranch, an area of Bexar County just outside Loop 1604 off Culebra Road. The vast majority of that population, as exhibited at Monday’s Place Changing: Annexation panel discussion at Doc Brown’s, does not want to become part of the City of San Antonio.
The event was hosted by the Rivard Report and Glasshouse Policy, an Austin-based nonpartisan organization working toward transparent government and crowdsourced policy creation. It was the third part of Place Changing, our periodic event and article series in collaboration with Overland Partners that aims to inspire public discourse about San Antonio’s rapidly changing areas.
For many suburban residents, like those in Alamo Ranch, making their voices heard to policy makers in downtown San Antonio is not as easy as it is for those living within the city limits who can more conveniently travel to City Council meetings and other stakeholder meetings in the urban core. The annexation panel discussion with elected City, County, and State officials was an opportunity for more than 100 attendees to share their views on the annexation of territories along IH-10 West and U.S. 281 North, and second phase annexation of Alamo Ranch in 2017.
You can still join the conversation on the Place Changing: Annexation website here.
On Monday, the message was clear: the City of San Antonio should stay away.
Many of those at the event view the incorporation of Alamo Ranch into the San Antonio city limits as creating more harm than good for area residents. Several people said that if the City cannot properly manage and take care of its own basic infrastructure needs, such as the large number of streets and sidewalks in need of improvement in the inner city, then it makes no sense to expand its reach and responsibility to other unincorporated areas of the county, such as Alamo Ranch.
“(The City is) not maintaining streets and sidewalks in the city now, so what makes (it) think it can do that here?” one Alamo Ranch resident asked the panelists, which included State Rep. Rick Galindo III (R-117), Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau, City Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8), and Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni. “(The City) needs to clean up (its) own act instead of imposing it on somebody else.”
A number of citizens believe that the City should focus on using funds for those inner city areas, which are inhabited mostly by low-income residents and have yet to meet their basic needs, instead of acquiring more land in areas like Alamo Ranch. Galindo, whose district includes Alamo Ranch and portions of San Antonio’s Southside, also is one of many critics of annexation for this reason.
“The City wants to focus on going after land grabs in other areas, but I’ve got roads (on the Southside) that need to be updated,” he said. “There (are) lots of areas that need to be updated and fixed first before (the City) starts coming out here.”
Audience members similarly expressed caution when it comes to the quality of general services, especially emergency services such as police and fire assistance. Control of each of those entities would be transferred from Bexar County over to the City if Alamo Ranch is annexed. One resident cited long response times – in his case, more than two hours – from the San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) when he got into a fender bender within the city limits as an example of lower quality services he and his neighbors would receive compared to those they currently receive from Bexar County.
“Why would I entrust the safety and security of my family to SAPD when I know the Bexar County sheriff’s office would be there in a heartbeat?” he asked the panelists, garnering applause from the audience. City officials told the Rivard Report after the discussion that the average SAPD response time is a little more than seven minutes.
Galindo pointed out that, if Alamo Ranch were to be annexed, SAPD would have to respond to a call in the area from a substation located off Culebra Road, across from the NISD Paul Taylor Field House. The distance, coupled with the heavy traffic the area is prone to, he said, would make response times even longer. The Bexar County sheriff’s office, on the other hand, has expanded its reach to better serve the unincorporated parts of the county.
From 2012 to 2014, the number of calls for services increased by 30%, Pamerleau said, and from 2015 to 2016, they went up another 12%. To address these growing needs, the County has increased the number of patrol deputies on the roads and has implemented its second substation on the city’s Northside to accompany its only substation located on the far-Southside. In the next four to six weeks, Pamerleau added, the County will break ground on two brand new substations on the county’s Northeast and Southwest sides.
This has allowed the sheriff’s office to to reduce response times by more than 20%, from slightly less than 13 minutes to slightly more than 10 minutes. Pamerleau said that regardless of City Council’s final annexation decision, the residents in Alamo Ranch, and those elsewhere outside the San Antonio city limits, shouldn’t worry about losing the quality of safety services provided to them by the County.
“If an area of Bexar County is annexed into the City of San Antonio, we will not drop that area like a hot potato,” Pamerleau told the audience, adding that the County will continue to serve that area until it is effectively and thoughtfully transferred over to SAPD.
Another key concern for Alamo Ranch residents is paying city taxes. Zanoni said City Manager Sheryl Sculley convened a task force of seven professionals with mixed backgrounds to make a side-by-side comparison of costs of living for those inside and outside the San Antonio city limits. Turns out, the costs of living for those living inside and outside the city limits are nearly the same, Zanoni said, since those living outside the city have expenses such as homeowner association dues and higher SAWS and solid waste fees, among others, that balance out other City fees such as sales taxes or permitting costs.
Additionally, Zanoni added, about 82% of people outside the San Antonio city limits drive into the city every day for work. Some of those in favor of annexation argue that since the majority of these populations already work in the city and use a number of City services, it’s only fair for them to pay city taxes.
The majority of City Council sees annexation as advantageous in terms of minimizing competition between small cities to attract jobs, bringing in revenue to finance infrastructure costs, and maintaining thoughtful development throughout the city with building codes and zoning regulations, Zanoni said.
Nirenberg said that the way in which the City hopes to use annexation does not promote sustainable growth.
One of the chief reasons to vote in favor of annexation is to “better balance the growth of our urban community,” he said. “We have an extraordinary amount of burden on ourselves in terms of services and infrastructure to manage.” Nirenberg added that he has yet to see the City meet those challenges regarding sustainable growth.
He does, however, see annexation as a “legitimate tool” for Texas cities and, like Galindo, believes Texas counties should have more authority from the legislature to enact the same regulations “to maintain those basic standards that we expect in rapidly urbanizing communities.”
It’s not atypical that so many residents are vehemently against annexation, Zanoni said. State law requires an “extensive public vetting process” before Council can make a final decision.
“There has to be openness, transparency, required hearings,” he said. “(There are) lots of steps that go into annexing an area.”
However, non-San Antonio residents cannot vote in City elections since they don’t reside within the city limits, meaning they cannot vote for or against annexation in September. For Galindo, the mere fact that, through the Municipal Annexation Act of 1963, Texas municipalities can annex areas without the consent of home and business owners in the targeted area is an example of “taxation without representation.” A number of legislators, including him, have attempted and failed to amend the Annexation Act to require that consent.
“I want to ensure my constituents’ voices are heard,” he said. “It concerns me when the people don’t have a say in the policies that affect them directly.”
Galindo, who has already been “working on this issue with the lieutenant governor’s office, the speaker of the house’s office, and the governor’s staff,” said that he will continue to fight for his constituents in the 2017 legislative session, which will convene on Jan. 10, 2017.
Top image: Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) speaks his mind during the discussion on annexation. Photo by Scott Ball.