When the recession hit in December 2007, much of the nation lurched to a halt. That was nearly 10 years ago, but the effects are still being felt.
Vancouver’s annexation plan, for example, remains in limbo.
“We don’t know what’s next,” said Chad Eiken, the city’s community and economic development director. “When the recession hit we basically eliminated our proactive annexation program.”
The city last updated its 20-year annexation blueprint in 2007. If Vancouver was on track with its plan, the city would also be on track to be the second-largest city in Washington.
Before the recession, the city had a full-time annexation planner and “we were pretty aggressively trying to implement the annexation blueprint,” Eiken said. Now the city has a part-time planner, working on a case-by-case basis most often responding to requests by property owners looking to join the city.
That doesn’t mean Vancouver is ready to give up on its plan. Eiken recently spoke about annexation to Vancouver Strong, a group of city leaders developing a proposal to move the city forward.
“Annexation is one of those areas where we need to get some more resources to have a more proactive forward-looking annexation program,” he said.
How the process works
When the city prepares to annex property, it’s preparing for a lengthy process.
“Once we decide to annex an area it’s really time-intensive, a lot of public outreach, a lot of analysis goes into what the needs are from an infrastructure standpoint and the development potential,” Eiken said.
An annexation that’s currently underway, for example, has been ongoing for three years.
The city has to evaluate the area’s need for services and begin a discussion with residents in the region.
“When we come into annexation there is often a lot of frustration by the people who live in that area who don’t want to be annexed,” he said. “The decision really has already been made, that the plan is for you to be part of the city at some point because you’re served with city services.”
Residents who are annexed get a voice in the city, a benefit Eiken said everyone should value.
The process begins with a public hearing, known as a 10 Percent Hearing. The hearing must occur before the city council within 60 days of a request for annexation. The city must show that owners representing 10 percent of the value of the properties are in favor of annexation. Then city staff obtains signatures from at least 60 percent of the property owners and delivers the information to the County Assessor’s Office. Once the signatures are certified, a final public hearing is held before city council to decide an official annexation date. Notice is then sent to interested parties, such as the state, county and property owners, and upon completion of a census with the area population information, the state’s Office of Financial Management certifies the annexation.
Annexation isn’t just on the city side. Staff must work with the county to iron out the details.
“I think there is an excellent working relationship at the staff level on these kinds of issues and there always has been even though the political environment between city and county hasn’t always been on solid footing,” Eiken said.
Marlia Jenkins, county administrative services manager, acknowledged that the city-county relationship has seen its share of strained moments.
“I think our council tends to be concerned that when the city annexes, if it’s a city-initiated annexation, the city is always looking out for their financial wellbeing — as they should — and they tend to annex areas with a lot of revenue,” Jenkins said. “Which then leaves the county with the residential areas that really don’t pay for themselves in term of services.”
There’s a struggle, she said, to balance where the city annexes so it doesn’t hurt the county budget or the city budget. But once the city does begin the annexation process, the county doesn’t have many options.
“We have no ability to stop an annexation — other than our powers of persuasion,” Jenkins said.
Eiken said as the city slowly begins to consider annexation again, their intentions need to be more clearly communicated.
“We need to have even better communication, especially with their elected leaders so they understand we’re not only following a plan but were trying to make it a balanced annexation and not just cherry-picking the areas that have high tax revenue,” he said.
This is complicated by the fact that the county recently let an interlocal agreement expire. The agreement accompanies the Growth Management Act and stipulates that the county will support city annexation efforts. The city and county will have to renegotiate the plan in 2018.
The city recently annexed Van Mall North.
“As we crawled and climbed out of the recession, council asked us to dust off the blueprint and see what areas will make sense to annex,” Eiken said. “Because a lot of work had already been done on Van Mall we thought we should just start with that and pick up where we left off.”
That process took about a year. The annexation was finalized Aug. 1. The city took in 4,200 households and several commercial areas. The city projected $1 million in new tax revenue and fees as a result.
“But that doesn’t really take into account infrastructure improvements that need to be completed over time, all the missing sidewalks, other upgrades, street lights, that have been developed under county standards and not necessarily to the city standards,” Eiken said. “The taxes they do pay don’t go very far to the service they’re getting.”
As the city resumes annexation planning, Eiken is concerned about shifting public perspective.
“I don’t know how to change the negative connotation in a lot of people’s minds that annexation is a bad thing,” he said. “It’s part of planning under the state growth management act. We’re following state law when we, in an orderly fashion, bring parts of the (Urban Growth Area) into the city’s limits.”
The city, he said, tries to focus on areas that already receive city services, but at some point, all of the UGA will be annexed.
Jenkins said the county council wants to work with the city to reconsider its annexation blueprint and work together to give “its citizens more predictability.”
She also suggested taking a birds-eye view to annexation moving forward.
“What if there was a thoughtful, organized approach to annexing that property and then building it into a city people truly like and enjoy,” she said.
Taking a larger bite of property at a time, for example.
“Maybe we need to be looking at how big do these need to be so it’s not a lot of tiny losses that don’t add up to enough that we can shed services,” Jenkins said. “At the same time for our city brethren, how much can we take at one time so we don’t choke on the need to provide city services. Getting together and talking about it in this new economy is something we think could be very helpful.”
After all, once the entire Urban Growth Area is annexed, the city of Vancouver will be the second-largest city in the state.
“That is both inspiring and terrifying at the same time,” Jenkins said.