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Luring people with sewer
Decatur officials eye Tuscaloosa as annexation model

By Eric Fleischauer
eric@decaturdaily.com · 340-2435

If you want sewer from Tuscaloosa, pull out your pen. But you need to agree to annex your property to the city first.

The policy is an essential ingredient in Tuscaloosa’s economic growth, but it’s not in Decatur’s arsenal.

Tuscaloosa’s Mayor Walter Maddox suspects it should be.

His input came in a recent benchmarking trip by Decatur business and political leaders to Tuscaloosa. The purpose of the trip, said Jim Page, vice president of public policy and business development at the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce, was twofold:

  • Get an inside look at the strategies employed by a dynamic city.

  • Decide if any of those strategies would promote economic growth in Decatur.

    Tuscaloosa has clubs in its golf bag that are missing from Decatur’s.

    U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, is one. Federal money flows into the city at a rate Decatur cannot hope for. The University of Alabama is another.

    A major difference relates to residential development. Tuscaloosa no longer is struggling under the dictates of a school desegregation order. The city promotes residential growth by helping its school system build schools in areas primed for residential growth.

    One of its most effective strategies, though, is a policy requiring prospective sewer users to annex into the city as a prerequisite to sewer access. That’s an idea that Decatur could adopt.

    City leaders and Decatur Utilities officials have discussed the idea for years, but DU continues to provide sewer access without annexation.

    “Sewer is gold,” said Maddox. “It’s one of the most important tools for growth we have.”

    City Councilman Ronny Russell, who was on the Tuscaloosa trip, said he is committed to some form of sewer-for-annexation policy.

    “Decatur needs to be both growth-aggressive and smart,” Russell said. “Implementing an ordinance of this nature is a big step towards that goal.”

    He said the city attorney is drafting a proposed ordinance for the council’s review.

    Growth, Maddox points out, is a matter of survival for urban areas.

    “If Tuscaloosa does not grow, if any urban area does not grow,” he said, “it dies on the vine.”

    A stagnant population means a declining tax base as the population ages. As tax revenues drop, a city’s infrastructure ages. The need for repair of sewer, roads and the like increases. A city with declining revenues cannot afford adequate infrastructure repair, and poor infrastructure chases away residents.

    It’s a situation cities need to avoid.

    Tuscaloosa’s sewer-for-annexation policy, Maddox said, helps avoid the problem by growing the tax base.

    The policy

    Tuscaloosa’s policy is straightforward: “Access to city sanitary sewers shall be permitted only if the (sewer user) is a direct water customer of the city and is located within the corporate limits of the city.”

    There are two significant exceptions.

    One, sewer lines built with federal grant assistance are exempted from the policy because of federal regulations requiring open access. Two, the City Council may exclude public facilities from the annexation requirement on a case-by-case basis. It did not, for example, require annexation as a condition of providing sewer access to an interstate rest area.

    Differences between Tuscaloosa and Decatur impact how a sewer-for-annexation policy could work here.

    In Tuscaloosa, sewer is provided by a division of city government; in the Decatur area, Decatur Utilities, not a division of city government, provides sewer.

    That difference is not as major as it at first seems, said Gary Borden, manager of gas, water and waste water at DU. The City Council appoints DU’s board. It must approve many DU policies. It must approve all DU expenditures exceeding $100,000.

    As a practical matter, Borden said, the City Council could implement the sewer-for-annexation policy if it wants to do so.

    “We’re really neutral in this,” Borden said. “The City Council is considering it. It’s up to them.”

    Another hurdle Decatur faces in implementing a sewer-for-annexation policy is a contract with Limestone County. The contract came about at a time when DU was facing expensive modifications to its treatment plant. The terms of the contract permit parts of southern Limestone County to pipe sewage to the treatment plant, for a fee.

    The problem — insurmountable, most DU officials believe — is that the contract specifically prohibits Decatur from making annexation a condition of sewer access.

    Limestone County, therefore, likely would have to be exempted from any sewer-for-annexation policy. That hurts because Huntsville’s economic growth is fueling Limestone County residential growth.

    Borden and other DU officials said they were unaware of any obstacles to a sewer-for-annexation policy, provided it excluded Limestone County for the duration of the contract.

    Another distinction between Tuscaloosa and Decatur is that Decatur is, well, hungrier. Tuscaloosa is experiencing growth of its population base, while Decatur’s population is nearly stagnant. Tuscaloosa’s economy is flourishing; Decatur’s is not.

    An industry just outside Decatur city limits is not as good as one inside city limits, but it is still beneficial. Many of its workers will reside in Decatur, and they will spend money in Decatur. The industry will hire contractors that are within city limits.

    Tuscaloosa may be in a better position to give ultimatums to industry than is Decatur.

    Russell said he believes a well-drafted ordinance can overcome obstacles like the Limestone County contract and incorporate the realities of a business-hungry Decatur.

    “This is something that I — as well as others on the council and DU board — are committed to seeing through to implementation,” Russell said. “We will extend sewer, and we will require annexation for its use.”

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