Normally, City Council doesn’t meet on the 5th Monday of the month, but we are in for a treat tonight! City Council has a work session discussion on the limits of annexation map and policies, continuing a discussion from an earlier July 10th meeting.

According to the staff memo, the city adopted it’s first annexation policy and map in the early 2000s after the annexations of Briarwood and Rehberg Ranch placed significant strain on city services. The policy and map are used to provide criteria to City Council on annexation decisions while an Annexation Committee assists by providing guidance to Council on the map and policy. The Annexation Committee consists of staff from City Administration, the Airport, Fire Dept., Parks Dept., Planning Division, Police Dept., Public Works, and MET Transit. You can see on the annexation map below which areas are within city limits (blue), and the two annexation limits: the red “petition area,” and orange “long range urban planning area.” City Council may give consideration to annexing properties within the red petition area while annexation requests from the orange long range planning areas should receive additional study and funding to ensure city services can adequately serve the area without overly stressing the limited amount of existing resources and causing a reduction in services to current residents—or requiring an increase in taxes.

Establishing criteria and being prudent about annexation is a wise policy for any city. Land under consideration for annexation is almost always at the farthest reaches of city boundaries, distant from existing services, and is usually the least dense. City service provision takes a greater effort for these properties (costlier to taxpayers) while serving fewer people (less tax base to pay for those services).

Devoted readers of the Billings City Council Bulletin will recall a previous newsletter on the City’s cost of services study highlighting the Strong Towns concept of the Growth Ponzi Scheme, the hypothesis that the American development pattern of growth through low-density suburban sprawl, which requires massive infrastructure costs/upkeep and receives limited tax revenues over the long term, eventually leads to a situation where there isn’t enough new growth to cover existing liabilities. Fortunately, a previous City Council had realized the significant liability and costs of annexation and drafted an annexation policy and map to provide additional criteria for annexation.

Tonight, however, City Council is considering adding area, previously not identified in the long range urban planning area (orange areas) to the petition area (red in the map above), and adding language to the annexation policy allowing land in the county to bypass the city’s long range urban planning area—and the necessary study of annexation impacts—and go straight to the petition area, next in line for annexation.

A passage from the staff memo should give City Council pause when making this decision:

“NOTE: The Annexation Committee anticipates the City’s execution of a Cost of Service Study and Growth Policy update may ultimately affect how the City’s Annexation Policy and Map are designed and used in the future. However, the Committee urges the Council to make these Map and Policy amendments now to ensure short term development projects are completed in the City to City Standards and further modifications may be informed later by the Cost of Service Study information.”

This has nothing to do with healthcare, but the sentiment is reminiscent of former Speaker Pelosi’s 2010 remark, “We have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it.” Cart before the horse, as it goes.

Additionally, Billings residents recently passed a much needed public safety mill levy just to ensure adequate safety services to current residents. Adding 10,000 more residents to the far reaches of Billings can only mean one thing for citizens, paying higher taxes for public safety. Council will have the draft report findings of their cost of services study in a little over one month. Before a decision is made, the Annexation Committee and City Council should re-evaluate the annexation amendments, with consideration for the results of the Cost of Services Study, to see how much a potential annexation will add to the tax burden on current residents.

(timeline graphic from Cost of Services Study Agreement)


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