The Outstater: Annexed for ‘Beads of Glass’

April 28, 2016

What is your ‘fair share’ of what someone else has worked for?” — Thomas Sowell

PROPONENTS WILL TRY MIGHTILY to say it in a nicer way. Most annexation, though, is theft. It may be a theft for the greater good. It may be a theft in the interests of “our” city. It may be a theft of opportunity, but a theft it will be.

The realpolitik is that a municipal administration can apply enough political pressure to individual councilmen, even conservative ones, that annexation is inevitable. Sooner or later — perhaps not on the first vote but surely on the second or third — the claims that a city is being strangled, that progress must be honored, that roads are deteriorating, will bend the vote to a majority.

Some years ago, the civic leader Ian Rolland organized a panel discussion in Fort Wayne to delineate the advantages of a progressive annexation policy. Dr. Sam Staley, an adjunct of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, was one of the panelists.

The august came to the podium one by one to make their presentations. All of them included evidence that their city’s particular annexation had increased per-capita income. It was left to Staley, the last presenter, to note the obvious: That when a city annexes an area with a higher per-capital income, that city’s per-capita income will be increased. If you rob someone, in other words, you will be richer.

Concurrently, Staley suggested that if suburbanites had fled a city because of high taxes and big government, it would be likely they also would flee the expanded city for the same reasons leaving any remnant with only bigger government and higher taxes — an insane public policy.

“We must annex those people. We can afflict them with our wise and beneficent government. We can introduce the novelty of thieves, all the way up from street-car pickpockets to municipal robbers and government defaulters, and show them how amusing it is to arrest them and try them and then turn them loose — some for cash and some for ‘political influence.’”

That was Mark Twain discussing islands in the western Pacific, but his quote applies with only a slight stretch of applicability. For the question of annexation ultimately turns on voluntary democratic processes. In most cases, there aren’t any.

Indeed, many of those trapped in annexation campaigns have no more choice than hapless 19th century Pacific islanders. They have traded their liberty for strings of glass beads, signed utility and association contracts in which the fine print waived their democratic rights.

What are promises of police and fire services worth if your current services are more than adequate? And if on the chance that the city can put together a believable plan to relieve financial pressure on school districts in the annexed area, how many accounting degrees will you need to follow the adverse consequences in future years?

There is a simple way to determine whether your particular annexation is benign or not. A veteran superintendent of schools taught it to me. Drive the boundary between the entity doing the annexing and the entity to be annexed. If new investment and construction is heavily on the county side of the road, larceny of some sort is in progress.

Finally, there is the raison d’état offered by the most polished of annexation arguments. It is that the stealing is justified. It is required to offset the financial strain resulting from the cap put on local property taxes during the Daniels years.

That does present a serious public-policy challenge. But it is disingenuous to frame it as a question of how local government can get more money. It should be framed as how government can operate more efficiently and responsibly, how it might reorder its priorities. But those are exactly the issues that the typical mayor would rather slit his wrists than address.

And that last, dear reader, is what it is really all about.

— Craig Ladwig


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