Bloomington’s Annexation: The Suburbs Don’t Need Rescuing

By Thomas A. Schwandt, Ph.D.

Two significant flaws characterize efforts of the Office of the Mayor of Bloomington to promote the annexation of the city’s suburbs: The absence of legitimate arguments for the annexation of specific subareas within a given proposed larger annexation area, and the use of hyperbolic characterizations of alleged benefits of the annexation, as opposed to substantive claims based in sound reasoning and evidence.

County and city residents have yet to hear sound arguments that any of the areas targeted for annexation is poorly served or governed and hence needs city help. We have yet to learn the specific ways the city will improve each of the proposed annexed areas — by providing room for future population growth? By increasing the supply of buildable land? By providing city control to prevent poor residential quality?

We find little or no evidence justifying the claims for the value of annexing any of the proposed annexation areas. The Mayor’s Office argued, in return for increased taxes, annexed areas will receive “enhanced services including policing, trash and recycling curbside collection, street and sidewalk/path construction and maintenance, stormwater management, access to Bloomington Transit, safety inspections for rental housing, neighborhood grants, trails, playgrounds and parks and more” (as stated in the FAQs on the City’s annexation website).

Are these claims valid? Let’s take as one example the proposed annexation of the Cedar Springs Subdivision in Area 2. Here are the facts of the matter regarding this approximately nine-year old subdivision:

  • It has streets and sidewalks and street lighting.
  • Residents pay for city utilities, which they would continue to pay for under annexation. The decrease in cost if annexed is hardly significant (approximately $70/year).
  • Residents contract for trash removal and recycling, and it is both efficient and effective.
  • Residents would continue to pay for trash removal under annexation; the annual cost would be slightly more for comparable city services.
  • The County takes care of stormwater management, and the subdivision has an extensive stormwater maintenance facility.
  • City and county police already respond to calls in the subdivision.
  • The area (in Perry Township) is well-served by the Monroe Fire Protection District.
  • Through their HOA dues, residents pay for snow removal.
  • Residents already have access to a Bloomington Transit line, about a hundred yards from the entrance to the subdivision.
  • The acreage of the subdivision is completely taken up by homes; thus no trails, playgrounds or parks are going to be built there. Moreover, no such trails, playgrounds or parks are likely to be built nearby, given that the city has recently approved the construction of more apartments in the only two potentially available green spaces that are within walking distance of the subdivision (i.e., multifamily dwellings at the intersection of Hwy. 446/46 and the Kmart apartment development).
  • There is no rental housing in the subdivision, and thus no need for safety inspections for rental housing.

Conclusion drawn from this example: The proposed increase in taxes that will result from annexation is not associated with any significant return of services to homeowners in that subdivision. Hence, the rationale the Mayor’s Office offers for annexation is specious.

On the second issue: Alex Crowley, Director of the Department of Economic and Sustainable Development for the City of Bloomington, recently advertised the following benefits of annexation:

  • “Bloomington will be a more resilient, sustainable, and equitable place thanks in part to annexation.” Precisely how will annexation make the city more resilient, sustainable, and equitable? Evidence please.
  • “By right sizing…the city will be able to steward resources and plan for the long-term well-being of the community.” Who is to decide what the “right size” of the city should be, and how? Are we to assume that without annexation the city is having difficulty stewarding its resources and that the long-term well-being of the city is currently in jeopardy? What evidence do we have that annexation will enhance stewardship of resources or enhanced community well-being? (The irony of using the phrase “right-sizing” in this context of annexation is apparently lost on the Mayor’s Office. Annexation involves expansion of land, personnel, resources, and so on. In the corporate world where the term originated, right-sizing means just the opposite—i.e., reduction of staff, restructuring to streamline management, cut costs, and the like.)
  • Mr. Crowley claims that city borders have not expanded for 17 years and “this inertia threatens Bloomington’s future success.” How should we define what success means in this context? In what ways is the success of Bloomington threatened if we fail to annex the proposed areas?
  • Mr. Crowley claims that the city “cannot attract employers without scale.” Another very curious claim. Would it not be the case that potential investors would judge whether a city is attractive to investment based on the common criteria of taxation and incentives, risk and return? And if they did consider “scale,” would they care whether the pool of potential employees was actually located within the city?

Given the magnitude and consequences of decisions to proceed with annexation ordinances, the City Council must press the administration for good reasons and evidence of the merit, worth, and significance of annexation and not rely on unsupported and vague claims.

Thomas A. Schwandt is a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, a resident of Bloomington and a former professor at the Indiana University Bloomington School of Education.

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