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Annexation fuels questions

AHOSKIE – Over the course of their two-plus years of annexation discussions, members of the Ahoskie Town Council have addressed the issue in front of a sparse audience.

That all changed here Tuesday evening.

With a standing-room only crowd filling and spilling out of the Council’s small meeting room, the town’s elected leaders and administrative staff were peppered with questions as the effective date of annexation, if approved by a majority vote of council, looms near.

Tuesday’s public information session was just one of numerous steps town officials must take en route to annexing four new areas into Ahoskie. Those areas are Colonial Acres, Ahoskie-Cofield/Willoughby Road, NC 561 East (Harrellsville Highway) and NC 42 West.

Town officials had originally scheduled the effective date of annexation for Oct. 18, but due to a wealth of new information concerning the issue, that date has been extended to Dec. 14.

“We want you (the town’s newest citizens) to have more time to study this information,” Ahoskie Mayor Linda Blackburn said.

In regards to the council’s small meeting area, the Mayor promised to look for a larger room to accommodate the crowd at the next scheduled public information meeting, now set for Oct. 6. A legally required public hearing on the annexation issue is scheduled for Oct. 21.

But while town officials are following and fulfilling the state statutes regarding municipal annexation, those in the affected areas want answers to two basic questions….”why us” and “why now?”

“What’s really bothering the people the most is we feel this is a forced issue,” said Bobby Beard, a Colonial Acres resident. “We weren’t asked (to be annexed). Personally, I feel I’m standing in front of a firing squad and have bought you (Ahoskie officials) the bullets.”

Bead continued, “Why do you need us?”

Ahoskie Town Manager Tony Hammond answered, “It’s two-fold: for the town to have stability/growth and, I’m not going to lie, it’s also a financial issue, but the state does allow us to annex in order to grow.”

Stan Dixon, another Colonial Acres resident, said this particular neighborhood was “self-made” and experienced no existing problems that require the town’s help.

“The individuals who live in this neighborhood made this neighborhood,” Dixon stressed. “We don’t have problems (that require police protection) because we look after each other. We have a winning team already in place in Colonial Acres and now Ahoskie wants to join that winning team.”

An unidentified man in the back of the meeting room asked, “What can we do to stop (annexation)?”

“Nothing,” was the simple reply from Larry Overton, an attorney who handles legal issues for the Town of Ahoskie. “There are (annexation) statutes written by the state of North Carolina and enforced by every municipality in the state. By law, a public body in every incorporated municipality can undertake annexation.”

Hammond explained there were two types of annexation allowed by state statutes n voluntary and involuntary. He said this particular annexation issue was involuntary.

Another unidentified person standing within the large crowd claimed the only reason the town was annexing the new areas was due to their need for money.

“I can assure you sir that’s not the case,” Mayor Blackburn said.

There was a question posed about the due date of town taxes. The concern there was if the effective date of annexation was Dec. 14, wouldn’t the new town citizens see their first tax bills cover a year and one-half due to the new fiscal year beginning July 1, 2009. Hammond said that was true, but the council could decide to proceed with the scheduled date of annexation on Dec. 14, but delay assessing the town property tax until July 1, 2009.

Based on figures supplied by the town, property taxes in the annexed areas will increase by $770, based on a home valued at $100,000. That includes a 91-cent county tax rate and 77-cent town tax (both assessed per $100 of value).

There was also much discussion on the fees the town would charge to connect to their water/sewer system. The town will incur construction costs (at $6,300 per 100 liner foot of road frontage) for installing water/sewer pipes to the new areas, but the property owners face connection/meter fees of $965 (water) and $600 (sewer). Many at Tuesday’s meeting called those connection fees “exorbitant.”

It was pointed out that those living in the new areas whose homes are supplied by on-site private wells and septic tanks could continue with those systems without connecting to the town’s infrastructure. However, the two town services are combined, meaning if a homeowner connects to sewer, they also must connect to water. Also, if a private septic system fails, the homeowner cannot repair it and must connect to the town’s system.

For those already served by town water/sewer (that service is supplied to some out-of-town areas), they will not pay to pay the connection fees. Those citizens will see their monthly flat rates for those services cut in half since they are currently paying double the normal fee due to living outside the town’s corporate limits.

There was a suggestion from one woman on Tuesday evening that town waive the connection fees if new citizens agree to immediately tap on to Ahoskie water/sewer. Hammond said that although that would cost the town approximately a half-million dollars, it was an issue which council members could consider.

Ahoskie’s newest citizens also face an annual increase in garbage collection (now paying $115 to the county compared to $240 for town residents). For that increase, the new citizens will have weekly curbside solid waste and yard waste collection. They will save money ($40 based on a $100,000 home) on the annual tax paid as being part of the Ahoskie Rural Fire Department district.

Based on 330 new parcels included in the annexation areas, the town will generate additional tax dollars. However, Hammond was quick to point out the town will spend $3.98 million upfront to extend its water/sewer infrastructure. Monies generated after the town recoups its initial investment is placed in Ahoskie’s Enterprise Fund, used to operate the system and for future town wide improvements.

Discussion was also generated concerning property that could be exempt from annexation. Hammond said this issue needs to be further studied before an answer is given.

Near the end of the meeting, Colonial Acres resident Barbara Perry handed Ahoskie officials five, typewritten pages of concerns posed by those affected by the annexation. She also provided 15 new questions for town officials to answer.

“(Your) plan has changed drastically,” Perry said. “I have read the new 35 pages of additional information (concerning annexation). We need your finalized documents so we can study them in detail. We can’t study a moving target.”

Hammond replied to Perry’s concerns by saying the state allows municipalities to make necessary changes in their annexation plans, even after those plans have started.

“This is the exact reason why we pushed our dates back, to give you more time to study this added information,” Mayor Blackburn noted.

The Mayor also cautioned those in attendance to please make sure they were armed with correct and accurate information and to base their questions (at the next meeting) off those facts.

The Ahoskie Town Council will conduct a special called meeting at 10 a.m. this morning (Thursday). On the agenda are a trio of annexation issues.