Is Bigger Better?

Some cities have long had an appealingly simple answer to urban problems: annex their way out of them. The problem of cities, they say, is that affluent suburbs have surrounded them, so the secret is to annex those areas before they can incorporate.
January 2003
By Otis White  |  Contributor
President of Civic Strategies Inc.

Some cities have long had an appealingly simple answer to urban problems: annex their way out of them. The problem of cities, they say, is that affluent suburbs have surrounded them, so the secret is to annex those areas before they can incorporate. Probably no city has followed that advice more religiously than Houston, which has annexed itself to gargantuan size, sprawling now to more than 623 square miles. But bigger may not always be better, as a recent series of articles in the Houston Chronicle makes clear. One problem is that, along with affluent neighborhoods, Houston has also annexed a lot of poorer areas with narrow streets, abandoned houses and ditches rather than storm sewers, and the city is falling further and further behind in bringing these areas up to standard. It isn't for lack of trying. Since 1992, Houston has spent $100 million just on resurfacing streets in these "below-standard" neighborhoods. Still, the city has a backlog of 1,400 miles of streets yet to be repaved and the backlog is growing. Some are now saying that the problem is the city's slavish adherence to annexation. "In essence," says one academic, "what Houston has done for decades is to set up a sort of giant pyramid scheme. They sold bonds on the premise that they wouldn't raise their tax rate, but they increased their tax base by constantly adding new territory."


Over the years, thousands of advocacy groups have sprung up in cities, from anti-fluoridation crusaders to mothers demanding the right to nurse their children in public. Here's a new one: the transit nerds, people who for one reason or another are nuts about public transit and spend countless hours researching, writing and lobbying for more trains and buses. Now the transit nerds may have scored their first big electoral victory, a referendum in Seattle to extend the city's 40-year-old monorail, built for a world's fair and used mostly as a tourist attraction, from 1 mile to 14 miles. The idea came from a cab driver. But Seattle's not the only place where amateurs are lobbying for transit. St. Louis, San Francisco and Phoenix have passionate transit advocacy groups. So does Los Angeles, where several groups are trying to get the city to try light rail. A quirky group called Friends4Expo Transit has succeeded in getting the city's transit authority to do engineering studies of the line they favor, along Exposition Boulevard. Their weapons: reams of data and relentless lobbying. The Expo advocates happily call themselves nerds. "All we need is the shirt-pocket protector for the pens," said one. What drives these folks? Hard to say. One of the nerds is a dermatologist who spends half his waking hours working for light rail. "I have my family and my work and my hobby," he said. "It ain't golf. It's transit."


Taxis may not exactly be public transit, but the Chicago school system is planning to use them that way. Actually, it won't be the first one to do so. Some St. Louis and Seattle children have been using taxis for years. What gives? Chicago's system is looking for ways to trim its $112 million a year transportation budget. What it has found is that sometimes it's cheaper to put kids in taxis than send a bus to pick them up. This is particularly true for those in special education programs, who may be headed to different schools than others in the neighborhood, or in places where only a handful of children live. Is it safe? School officials say cab drivers would face the same background checks as regular bus drivers and be required to take training programs and be screened for tuberculosis. Biggest stumbling block: requirements that companies transporting kids have $10 million in liability insurance. School board officials say they're considering relaxing that rule for cab drivers. "If [the district] can lower it and still maintain a level of safety and not put the board at risk, OK," said one. Some parents are wary. "I don't like my children getting into cars with other people," said a Chicago mom. But others love the idea. "It's like a fantasy," one parent declared. "How privileged our kids would be!"


Among the hundreds of state referenda approved in the November election is one in Florida that allows homeowners to build "granny flats" as additions without an increase in their property taxes. The details aren't known yet--the state legislature still must pass enabling legislation--but generally the constitutional amendment calls for tax-free additions as long as they're occupied by a grandparent or parent who's 62 or older. There are many questions to be resolved: What happens if the parent moves out or dies? What happens if zoning ordinances or building codes forbid this kind of addition? What about additions that have already been completed--do they get the tax break? "If someone goes to the city or the county and says, I built this for abuela (Spanish for grandmother) and we want to be exempt, does it count?" asks Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, who has been fighting illegal additions in his city. But proponents say the benefits outweigh any objections.