No ruling yet in annexation hearing

Published 4:51 pm Thursday, March 20, 2008

After hours of testimony from the City of Poplarville, planners, and residents opposing the city’s annexation plans on Wednesday, Judge James Thomas has yet to issue a ruling on the annexation matter.

The city was represented by Jerry Mills of Pyle, Mills, Dye and Pittman in Jackson and city attorney Martin Smith. Mayor Billy Spiers, and aldermen Shirley Wiltshire, John Sherman and John Grant also were present for the city. A small group of citizens opposing the matter chose Poplarville resident Robert Saucier and Poplarville businessman Mark Hines as their representatives.

The city began presenting its case with testimony from City Clerk Jody Stuart. Stuart testified to the authentication of numerous documents including the city’s budget for 2007-2008, agreements between the City of Poplarville and the Pearl River County Utility Authority and a service and facilities plan adopted by the board of aldermen at their meeting Tuesday evening.

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Stuart also testified to the financial standing of the city, saying that at the end of the 2007 fiscal year, the city’s account balances were equal to 100 percent of the general fund expenditures. In addition, of the $1.8 million available to the city in debt limitations, approximately $1.6 million, or 90 percent, are still available and have not been used, Stuart said.

In his cross-examination of Stuart, Saucier asked why a map showing the proposed annexation area had not been made available to the public, and Stuart testified such a map was available for review in City Hall.

Spiers testified the city had been working on its annexation plans for approximately six years. Spiers also testified that the city originally wanted to annex a larger area than the final area proposed, but did not have the funds available for the larger proposed annexation area.

“We initially wanted to annex in all four directions. However, at the time, we did not have the funds available. We sent the proposal to the planners for recommendations… Once we received the planners’ recommendations, we opted to annex an even smaller area than was recommended,” Spiers said.

Spiers said the city’s need for annexation stems from the fact that the city has run out of room to grow commercially and residentially.

“The city is bursting at the seams… It can be compared to blowing up a balloon. We’re running out of room,” Spiers said.

Spiers said one of the concerns at the time was the ability to be financially able to provide services to the proposed annexation areas.

“It’s important to be able to keep our promises to these people,” Spiers said.

Spiers said the final proposed area was decided upon mainly because of the commercial corridors that Mississippi 26, Mississippi 53 and Interstate 59 provide to the city.

“We wanted (these corridors) to be in the city limits for commercial development purposes. Access to the transportation corridors are considered to be very important to the city… These corridors are the first impression a lot of people get of the city of Poplarville,” Spiers said.

In his cross-examination, Saucier asked Spiers if he thought the proposed area was fair to the residents of the areas being annexed.

“Yes, I do. Especially when we don’t have the funds to provide services (to a larger area) otherwise,” Spiers said.

Saucier asked Spiers why sections such as the Highlands Subdivision had been removed from annexation plans. Spiers said the Highlands were removed from consideration for three reasons: The city did not want to be responsible if the dam broke, the roads are not built to city specifications and the water line in the subdivision is not suitable to provide fire services for the subdivision.

After Spiers concluded his testimony, Chris Watson of the planning firm Ridge and Watson, testified on behalf of the city. Watson, who has been in planning for 14 years and qualifies as an expert witness on the subject, testified there are 12 indicators that annexation is reasonable for an area, and that the city of Poplarville meets the indices of reasonableness.

One of the indicators Watson addressed is the municipality’s need to expand. Watson said the city is currently at approximately 60 percent of its building capacity, which is a high percentage for a municipality.

“I do not know of a single city that is built out to 100 percent. In all honesty, the city should have been annexing land prior to this point. The vacant land in the city is not appropriate for commercial development. You can find a lot here and there, but you shouldn’t bet on random commercial territory. The land up for annexation is primarily commercial properties,” Watson said.

Other indices included whether potential health hazards exist from sewage and waste disposal in the proposed annexation areas, whether there is need for zoning and planning in the proposed areas, whether residents of the proposed areas are receiving economic and social benefits without paying municipality taxes and the municipality’s financial ability to make the improvements and furnish services promised. Watson testified that all these indices are present and certified that the proposed annexation is reasonable.

After the city concluded its case, residents opposing the annexation were given the opportunity to give testimony. Sal Salinger of Heatherland Drive took the stand and said he was concerned about the higher taxes that residents will have to pay when they become part of the city.

“The main reason I’m against the annexation is that I’m on a fixed income. The expense is more than I can handle… The higher costs will cause a tremendous burden on senior citizens in the (Heatherlands) subdivision,” Salinger said.

Saucier asked Thomas to accompany him out to look at the proposed areas of annexation. Thomas, Saucier, Watson and Mills left the courtroom to view the proposed areas, and upon returning, court was recessed.

Smith was not surprised that a decision was not forthcoming at the hearing, but says he hopes to have a ruling within the next week or so.