DECATUR — City leaders are looking to stem a possible population loss in the upcoming U.S. Census by bringing more properties into Decatur limits through annexation.
Anyone driving the city’s main corridors might see an empty retail spot or former restaurant and wonder: Why is that still empty? Reporters Kennedy Nolen and Analisa Trofimuk look at the causes — and a new city effort to help.
By the end of the year, officials say, about 200 properties will have been annexed, meaning the owners will become Decatur residents who pay taxes to the city and receive city services. Some of them aren’t happy about the change. But council members say the push is long overdue for multiple reasons.
“The annexations should have been happening over the last 20 years,” Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe said. “The city is finally doing what they should have done years ago, but for whatever reason, previous councils moved very slowly.”
Now, the clock is ticking. Next year’s census could hurt communities that have lost residents. That’s because population counts determine how $675 billion in federal money is distributed each year for services such as food stamps, school lunch programs, some Medicaid programs, highway construction projects and more. The state of Illinois also uses the number to guide how much cities receive from state income tax, motor fuel tax and more.
The 2010 count was 76,122. For every thousand people lost, Decatur could receive $171,540 less annually, according to an estimate from City Manager Scot Wrighton. In a memo to council members this year, he said recent unofficial population estimates put Decatur closer to 70,000 residents.
If Decatur loses a significant number of people, he warned, there would be consequences for its general fund — and its street improvement budget.
Under state law, properties can be annexed without an owner’s permission when they are fully surrounded by the city limits and are smaller than 60 acres. In other cases, Decatur property owners previously signed an agreement that allowed them to use city’s water only if they agreed to be annexed when their property became contiguous with city limits.
City leaders were so eager to speed the process along that they offered some residents a $50 Visa gift card as an incentive to complete required annexation paperwork faster. Wrighton said a number of those being annexed are pleased to join the city and receive its services.
But for others, the change is unwelcome. That includes Randy and Mary Moore, whose property on the city’s northeast side has been passed down through generations.
The family does not use city water services and has its own septic system, Randy Moore said. It sits on Carolyn Avenue, part of an island of properties that are completely surrounded by Decatur city limits. He said they were informed by the city that their property would be annexed, and they feel forced into the situation.
“It doesn’t really matter how you feel about it,” said Randy Moore, who is retired. “We aren’t going to get anything out of this other than a higher tax bill. It’s going to happen regardless because it is legal for them to do it.”
The Herald & Review has filed a Freedom of Information Act seeking the full list of properties that have been annexed this year. An unofficial list, compiled from council agendas, shows the city has annexed nearly 150 properties since May.
In many cases, water service agreements that allow for annexation were signed years ago, sometimes before the current owners lived in the properties. Wrighton said there are 527 such properties that are contiguous with city limits or will be after annexations take place.
“I feel sorry for homeowners to a certain extent,” said City Councilman Pat McDaniel. “In some cases, they might have purchased the property more recently and the property owners before them were the ones to sign the agreement. But we need to do this, and the city should have moved forward with this years ago.”
New services — and new rules
Bringing more properties into the city limits carries benefits beyond the census. Wrighton said it would increase the city’s taxable base without driving up the property tax rate.
Macon County Clerk Josh Tanner said the city notifies the county after the council approves an annexation, allowing it to be added to the tax rolls.
But Decatur’s gain could mean a loss for neighboring fire protection districts, such as Hickory Point and Long Creek.
Property owners that are annexed into the city could wind up paying taxes for services from both the Decatur Fire Department and the fire protection district that had covered them before. The owners can then petition to be removed from the fire protection district.
Hickory Point Fire Chief Josh Trendler said the annexations shouldn’t cause too much trouble in their district. “Every elimination is a loss of income, but other departments could have it worse,” he said
Wrighton also suggested earlier this year that the city should seek to remove the fire protection districts from some areas that are now covered by both departments.
Other city services, such as snow plowing and water, should be implemented as properties are annexed, said Tara Bachstein, administrative secretary for Decatur Public Works. Councilman David Horn said he’d heard feedback from some newly annexed residents who said their streets were not plowed after a recent snow event.
An orientation offering information about all city services is in the works, Wrighton said.
“I was under the impression we had something like this all along but we don’t,” he said, “so we are creating something for Decatur residents and will try to get it out as soon as possible.”
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Sewage services are more complex, because they are provided by the Sanitary District of Decatur, a separate government body. “There are some properties within the city of Decatur that pay property taxes but do not receive sanitation services through the Decatur sanitary district and vice versa,” Tanner said.
Bachstein said the sewage services would have to be worked out once the properties are annexed. She also said the residents would be able to remain in their respective school districts and would not have to join Decatur Public Schools.
Newly annexed property owners also would have to comply with city code ordinances. Tanner said residents in unincorporated areas do follow Macon County ordinances, but these vary in how restrictive they are based on the classification of the property.
For instance, the Moores used to burn leaves in the fall. They won’t be able to do that under city code.
Mary Moore said she and neighbors consulted with city staff and emailed council members about their concerns. She also attended a council meeting in early November to discuss how being annexed into the city and having to follow city ordinances would change their lifestyle.
“The city tried to tell us our lifestyle wouldn’t change,” Mary Moore said. “But of course it is going to change. We will have to change things based on Decatur ordinances we didn’t have to follow before.”
Horn said he agreed with the move to annex properties, but said it has resulted in some distressing circumstances for individual homeowners.
“Many individuals have written very heartfelt letters and emails and appeared before city council describing how they are on fixed incomes and that higher property taxes may significantly reduce their discretionary income that they have available to them,” Horn said. “For several of them, this is an unexpected expense that is difficult to plan for.”
‘We moved too slowly’
Some property owners in to-be-annexed areas also were notified in a letter that they would get a $50 gift card for signing the annexation petition within 21 days of receiving the notice. Information about how many gift cards have been given out was not immediately available Friday.
Wrighton said the gift cards were meant as an incentive for property owners to sign the paperwork sooner rather than there being a flood of documents coming in at once.
Resident Sarah Burleton sent a letter to council members saying the gift card was a slap in the face.
“Why would you need to bribe us and spend Decatur taxpayer money on gift cards if these agreements signed decades ago already locked us into annexation?” she wrote, in an email she provided to the Herald & Review.
Moore Wolfe responded, explaining that the gift card was offered so people would sign the petition in a timely manner. “It (the gift card) was meant as an incentive for people to respond prior to a deadline, as we have a great deal of documentation that accompanies annexation,” Moore Wolfe said.
Councilman Chuck Kuhle also responded to Burleton’s email and said he agreed with her point about the gift cards but that he stood by the decision to annex properties. He said the current council is “taking the heat” for something that should have been done years ago.
In a phone interview, Kuhle reiterated that sentiment.
“It’s taken the city so long to do it, when it should’ve been done immediately,” Kuhle said. “If you had city water, you should’ve been hooked up immediately.”
McDaniel, who has been on the council for nine years, recalled that city staff asked about moving forward with annexations about six years ago. The council agreed to do so at that time, he said.
“But for whatever reason, we moved too slowly, he said. “We should have started this a long time ago.”
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Contact Analisa Trofimuk at (217) 421-7985. Follow her on Twitter: @AnalisaTro