Whether and when residents will find their homes or businesses annexed into the city of Columbia might become slightly clearer next week.
Capital city leaders say their plans to step up annexations have been misunderstood by many in Richland County. And they want to remind folks that no votes have been taken to target large areas of the county to become part of the capital city.
“The fears that the county has expressed about annexation are false fears,” said citywide Councilman Howard Duvall. “If the city expands, it helps us all.”
The simmering issue has raised the hackles of some in the county, including several council members. Elected officials from City Hall and the county are set to discuss annexation publicly during a rare joint meeting on Tuesday.
Mayor Steve Benjamin is asking members of both councils to focus on improving public services through annexation and avoid being “territorial.”
“We went to great pains to explain that any annexation strategies would be logical and not only logical but fair,” Benjamin said.
Still, city leaders need to do more, he said. They need to explain better why water, sewer, police, trash pickup and other services would be improved, especially in smaller areas surrounded by the city.
City Council has been authorizing annexations of many parcels, mostly those in what are called “doughnut holes.” Those are unincorporated areas encircled by or near the city limits.
Late last year, though, City Hall began discussing more aggressive annexations that could take in large swaths of land, including burgeoning areas like development along Killian Road near Blythewood and the Garners Ferry Road corridor east of Columbia. The city also hired an annexation coordinator to lead the effort.
But no decisions have been made on which large geographic areas to target. The issue is of major importance to the city, since annexation keeps cities vibrant by expanding their tax bases.
The lack of formal action by City Council didn’t stop county political leaders and residents north of I-20 from calling a community meeting in February to loudly reject any annexation off Wilson Road, which connects the city to the Blythewood area.
Often, a dividing line on County Council is among members who represent rural and suburban areas and those whose districts are inside Columbia.
“It is a very hot, volatile situation with some people,” said Councilman Greg Pearce, whose district is almost entirely within the city limits. “I don’t really have a dog in that fight. (But) you mention annexation to Mrs. Kennedy (Councilwoman Gwen Kennedy), and she’ll go nuclear on you.”
Kennedy, who represents a district north of Columbia but south of Blythewood, was heavily involved in the February meeting at Midlands Tech campus where residents all but shouted down Columbia’s annexation coordinator.
She and other county council members have complained repeatedly that Columbia is targeting restaurants and bars in the county for the tax revenue they collect on prepared meals and alcoholic beverages.
Kennedy told The State her chief concern is that residents get a chance to voice their opinions on whether they support annexation.
“There have been times that annexations have taken place and they weren’t asked whether they wanted it,” she said.
Personally, Kennedy said, she opposes annexation as a way to expand cities.
Tuesday’s meeting will be the first time members of Columbia and Richland County councils have had face-to-face discussions to find common ground for dealing with annexation.