Pesky doughnut holes result of poor annexation laws

THERE'S NO justification for two different governments providing duplicative services to residents living on the same street, but it happens all the time in communities across South Carolina.

In Richland County, there are places where all but one or two homes on a given street are inside the city of Columbia. County contractors send a garbage and recycling truck to that lone house in the county, while the city serves all of its surrounding neighbors. While Columbia police cars might patrol the street, Richland County sheriff's deputies must respond when there's an emergency at a house outside the city's limits.

That's wasteful and confusing. It simply makes more sense - practically and economically - for one government to serve all residents on that street.

Columbia is working aggressively to annex those areas - called doughnut holes - where city land surrounds parcels in unincorporated Richland County. But the state's archaic annexation laws make that a difficult task. In South Carolina, residents have to ask to be annexed; the city can't just do it.

There are 2,560 parcels across the city that officials want to bring into town. The hope is that the owners will come in willingly. But many won't. That would put the city in a position to determine whether to apply pressure some consider to be heavy-handed. If residents refuse to willingly be annexed, Columbia suggests it will stop supplying water and sewer services.

The city began a campaign to bring the 2,560 parcels into its limits last month. In the first phase, it sent letters to 85 property owners. The letters, which noted the city isn't obligated by law to provide water service outside its limits, asked Farrow Road property owners to petition the city for annexation by Oct. 5. Predictably, not all owners signed the petition, prompting a second, more strongly worded letter.

Critics who automatically label Columbia the bad guy should direct much of their anger at state lawmakers, who have refused to reform our annexation laws. Simplifying the process and allowing cities to expand their natural boundaries as adjacent areas increase in density and demand municipal services isn't just about helping municipalities grow. It also would improve service delivery and bring some sorely missing uniformity in some areas. Under the current scenario, neighbors pay uneven rates for services and are confused about which government delivers that service and who their elected representatives are.

While courts have upheld cities' right to deny water service for properties outside their limits, municipalities shouldn't have to use basic and necessary services such as water as a bludgeon to get people who should naturally be in the city to agree to be annexed. Every year, lawmakers introduce one or more bills to improve our archaic annexation laws, but to no avail. It's time they get serious and allow cities to expand their natural borders in an efficient, sensible manner.

Of course, that won't come in time to help Columbia deal with its current dilemma. Some city officials are reluctant to use water and sewer service as a hammer. They should be; it's not good to make enemies of residents you want to engraft into your city.

That said, the city's effort to bring doughnut holes into its limits isn't unreasonable. These areas should have been annexed long ago. As it implements its plan, the city must be deliberate about the process but cautious in how it handles prospective residents.