Annexation Relief at Long Last
by Derek Cohen, Ph.D.
Wells Branch Resident
On August 15th, Governor Abbott signed Senate Bill 6 into law, curtailing the authority of home-rule cities to unilaterally annex surrounding areas.
Historically, annexation was used as a mechanism for budding cities to grow organically beyond existing borders. As unincorporated areas developed and became less distinguishable from the neighboring city, annexation provided a legal framework for extending municipal services – and subsequent tax obligations to fund them – to the annexed area. However, after decades of dubious land grabs, unfulfilled service obligations, and manifold increases in municipal tax rates, Texans have realized that annexation is best executed when both the city and residents of a targeted area negotiate from equal footing.
This is what SB 6 enshrined into law: that residents are brought within the boundaries of a city democratically when it serves the mutual interest of both parties. If Austin were to move to annex Wells Branch, the move would have to pass a democratic vote.
The complexity of the existing local government code and the enacted legislation has led to some confusion surrounding whether or not Wells Branch is still eligible for annexation. Specifically, the bill exempts areas that are presently operating under strategic partnership agreements (SPA) with the annexing municipality. Oftentimes, these agreements establish a date certain for annexation.
Unfortunately, for the residents of River Place and Shady Hollow – two outlying areas with annexation agreements in place – jurisdictions with existing SPAs are exempt from the bill’s protections. The concerted showing of citizens from these areas during open testimony on the legislation underscored how important the issue has become. Luckily, Wells Branch is not party to such an agreement in place with the City of Austin. Unless we were to enter into one before December 1st, the full protections of SB 6 apply to us.
There is one lingering point of concern. Well Branch is currently under a consent agreement with Austin to provide water and wastewater service to the District; an agreement due to expire in the not-too-distant future. At this time, the District will have to renegotiate certain terms of its relationship with Austin, which distally affect how much water costs its residents. As with most monopolies, there is nothing to restrain the seller from drastically increasing the price to consumers. While the legation includes a clause that prohibits retaliatory price increases, loose language renders this measure largely unenforceable.
There may come a future date where it is in the mutual interest of the residents of Wells Branch and the City of Austin for the district to become fully and formally part of the city. SB 6 does not prevent this from happening; it simply ensures that all of our neighbors have direct input in the process.