Bloomington has been expanding its boundaries for decades. Faced with a third lawsuit in its 6-year fight to annex multiple surrounding areas, the city may have finally hit a wall.
Annexation is the process of expanding city boundaries to ensure the city’s economic growth matches its population. Annexation is usually fiercely resisted by the people being annexed due to changes in property taxes, local laws and concerns of unwanted development. But proponents argue that annexation provides benefits to the residents being annexed, such as the opportunity to receive city services like sewer, sidewalks and the ability to receive city grants and loans.
However, residents in annexation areas are not always excited about the listed benefits of annexation.
Susan Brackney, a freelance writer, and her neighbors in Annexation Area 4 have learned to get by without city services. Brackney recycles and composts so much that she hardly has trash. When she does, her neighbors take it, and she takes their compost in return.
“We have a way of working things out over here,” she said.
So when the city announced a plan to annex the area, which would make it part of Bloomington, Brackney and her neighbors didn’t see much value. The most promising benefit—being connected to city sewer—was not guaranteed. Instead, it depends on the feasibility of extending sewer lines to the area if it’s not near enough to connect, and then it would require 60% of residents to put up a deposit to achieve the goal.
Although some annexation proponents have painted those in annexation areas as well-off suburbs unwilling to pay their fair share, Brackney said most houses are small, with a large community of senior residents. Area 4 is located inside Bloomington’s boundaries on the west side of the city, and is often described as an “island” within the city.
According to a video provided by Brackney, one resident of Area 4 says annexation would cause hardship because some residents live week-to-week.
Brackney recalls hearing concerns that residents would be forced to move due to the increase in property taxes.
“Some of my neighbors were actually in tears,” she said.
She describes the area as agrarian, including lots of green space, pastures and mature trees. The lack of concrete filters the stormwater runoff, helping the city reduce flooding, she said.
Brackney sees the lack of development in the area as a blessing because it has preserved the greenery she and her neighbors love. Becoming part of the city may jeopardize that, Brackney said.
Brackney has suggested things like grandfathering the property tax increases for the elderly and low-income people to the city council. She said her proposal was turned down, and she generally feels like the concerns of proposed annexation residents are not being heard.
“We’re just regular people, just trying to get through day-to-day,” she said.
A history of annexation in Bloomington
Bloomington has annexed property several times in its history, with the last annexation occurring in 2004. A voluntary annexation, however, occurred in 2007.
Initially a campaign promise from Mayor John Hamilton, the city’s most recent annexation effort began in 2017. Slowed by the Indiana legislature and a subsequent Indiana Supreme Court ruling, Hamilton’s efforts have stretched out for six years. Now the city faces two more lawsuits, one from the County Residents Against Annexation and one filed by the city against Monroe County Auditor Catherine Smith and the State of Indiana.
“It’s part of the international doctrine of human rights that people not be annexed against their will,” Margaret Clements, president of the CRAA, said.
Indiana is one of three states in the U.S. where a municipality can unilaterally incorporate people into a city without consent. However, the process has become more difficult in the past few decades. One law allows residents of proposed annexation areas to have the annexation voided if they secure signatures from 65% of residents. This process is called remonstrance, and it’s at the heart of the two lawsuits.
The annexation lawsuits, explained
One lawsuit is against the county auditor Catherine Smith and the state of Indiana. The lawsuit challenges Smith’s decision to void five out of the seven annexation areas due to petitions showing at least 65% of residents in opposition. The city argues that Smith counted people who had signed remonstrance waivers, which means the residents gave up their right to oppose annexation by living in a neighborhood with city sewer services. Smith’s position is that many of the waivers had expired, according to a state law that says the waivers expire after 15 years.
But the law was made after the sewers were expanded and the waivers were signed.
“The issue is: can the state legislature step in and change the rules?” Paul Helmke, former Fort Wayne mayor and professor at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, said.
The second lawsuit was brought by County Residents Against Annexation, a tax-exempt nonprofit formed to oppose the most recent annexation efforts. The lawsuit involves two annexation areas that did not receive enough signatures for remonstration—both areas collected more than 51% but less than 65% of signatures, which gives them the ability to be reviewed by the courts but does not qualify it for automatic voiding. CRAA is asking for an extension in gathering petitions due to the pandemic, citing an Indiana law that names “pestilence” as a reason for extension.
The biggest issue for county residents? Taxes
Clements said the increase in property taxes could be as high as $100,000 for some large companies or as low as zero, but that it averages at above $600 per property. The variable nature of the increase depends on the existing value of the person’s property.
Clements said this can be a problem for people on fixed incomes, especially retired people. Their savings may not be enough for a sudden increase in tax burden, which might cause people to sell their homes.
“They feel like they’re being involuntarily displaced from their homes,” she said.
To top it off, many retired people are recovering from having lost a spouse, Clements said. Moving, especially in the wake of tragedy, is a disruptive experience, she said.
“I think it’s extremely hypocritical for those in government to proclaim they care about affordable housing and then make people’s homes unaffordable for them,” she said.
Ultimately, Clements wants her organization to continue educating people as they navigate a complex legal process.
“We exist to give people a voice,” she said.
The argument for annexation
Helmke said he has personally used annexation during his time as Fort Wayne’s mayor to keep up with growth.
“A city’s boundary lines should reflect the economic and demographic reality of the community,” he said.
He said it’s an efficient way to deliver services and respond to the community’s common problems and opportunities. Just being outside the city of Bloomington extends benefits without the costs of increased taxes, Helmke said.
“Cities that have been able to expand their boundary lines are able to be more successful,” he said.
Helmke said that annexation has always been controversial, mostly due to tax increases. He acknowledged that for people on fixed incomes, a jump in property taxes is a concern; however, Helmke mentioned that social security had just gone up by 8.7% this year.
Ideally, Bloomington would take increased income from annexation and provide aid for those struggling financially, Helmke said.
“If everyone paid their fair share then we wouldn’t have these types of issues,” he said.
Helmke said it’s gotten harder to annex in the past 25 years due to new legislation passed by the state legislature. Without expanding its boundaries, Bloomington faces a threat to its growth.
“Our problems in the community don’t stop at the boundary line,” he said.
Communications director for the office of the mayor, Andrew Krebbs, declined to comment due to a policy of not commenting on ongoing litigation.