The City Council is set to decide Tuesday whether to allow residents living west of Mobile to vote on joining the city, and the verdict could be a split down racial lines.
Of the council’s seven members, three are black and all have expressed reservations about Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s plans to add 13,000 new residents, pushing the city population over the 200,000 mark.
Of the three, council President Levon Manzie is considered a possible swing vote. Manzie said that he hasn’t made up his mind on the annexation matter.
The council is being asked to authorize a special annexation election in three “corridors” immediately west of Mobile’s present boundaries. Only the voters in those unincorporated areas would be eligible to participate.
Five council members – a supermajority – must agree in order for the annexation election to occur, likely on a date in December.
“Somehow or another I’ve been pegged as a swing vote on this issue and I take this seriously,” Manzie said as Thursday’s council meeting concluded.
Earlier, the city released an analysis showing how boosting the city’s population past 200,000 would increase opportunities for large public safety grants.
The annexation, if approved, would alter Mobile’s racial demographics from 50.4% black-45.4% white to 48.8% black-46.7% white.
The largest by far of the three annexation areas, dubbed the “Schillinger Corridor,” is 69% white and 22% black. It is home to about 11,000 people. There, a pro-annexation citizens group has waged an active campaign to be added to the city.
A second corridor ranges over properties at Airport Boulevard and Snow Road, while the third takes in the Kings Branch subdivision and surrounding tracts near Semmes.
Overall, the city would maintain its “majority-minority” population, a fact that annexation supporters have highlighted.
But Councilman Fred Richardson, who is black, has characterized the annexation as a political maneuver on Stimpson’s part.
Richardson plans to run for mayor in 2021. Stimpson, who is white, remains publicly undecided about running again.
Manzie said his vote won’t be based on altering the racial demographics of the city.
“I would not automatically assume that if someone was in favor annexation, it was because of a racial inclination,” said Manzie. “Conversely, I would not automatically assume that someone who was in opposition would be following along in that same tact.”
Manzie said, “I know we are in a charged political environment. I take that into context. But any decision I make will be based on what is best for the citizens in the district I represent whether they are white, black, green or orange.”
He added that, thus far, he’s heard mostly opposition to annexation from residents in his district. But he said that he’s “still listening” to all sides.
‘Public safety aspects’
The city’s annexation analysis issued Thursday goes into much detail about the grant possibilities available if the city’s population topped 200,000.
James Barber, the city’s executive director of public safety, said Mobile would be eligible for $8.5 million in additional grant money over the next three years.
“I can’t think of any other item on the agenda that has the single most impact for the city of Mobile, both economically as well as the public safety aspects,” Barber said.
According to the analysis, the city would be placed in a different category of cities competing for U.S. Department of Justice grants. For instance, the COPS Hiring Program (CHP) allows so-called “small agencies” in cities with a population under 200,000 to apply for grants that would support one to 15 new police officers. The “mid-size agencies” — those in cities with a population of 200,000 to 1 million – would be eligible for adding 15 to 30 new officers.
A similar scenario exists for police agencies seeking federal money through the Body Worn Camera (BWC) partnership with the Department of Justice. According to grant criteria, cities under 200,000 people are allowed to apply for up to $400,000. Mid-size cities with populations between 200,000 and 1 million can apply for up to $2 million in grants.
“We are in a category of cities that are equivalent to Madison, Decatur and Dothan,” Barber said. “(We want to be placed) in cities the size of Forth Worth, San Francisco and Jacksonville. It would put us in a totally different category.”
The city’s information also included the DOJ’s rankings of applications for its 2017 CHP grant. The agency received 1,119 applications from law-enforcement agencies that year requesting 3,094 officer positions totaling more than $409 million in grant requests. According to the city of Mobile, only 179 applications were funded totaling $98.5 million.
The city analysis, contained in a booklet, also described looming deadlines: Changes to the city’s boundaries need to be in effect before New Year’s Day. The U.S. Census Bureau will then conduct the 2020 population count beginning in March,
“If we do not hit this mark, and we have our boundaries set on Jan. 1, 2020, we are stuck with those boundaries and the population count for the next 10 years,” said Barber. “It’s imperative that we are successful.”
Manzie, though, said the tight timeline to approve the annexation has been troubling. Stimpson has previously said that the reason he didn’t bring up the annexation plan before last month was because of the delay in the council voting on the city’s fiscal year 2020 budget.
Manzie said the release of the booklet with the grant information would probably result in “about 20 more questions” from council members regarding the annexation.
“That’s one of the deficiencies of bringing this initiative in such a truncated fashion,” he said. “We haven’t had, in my opinion, all the time we need to have the answer to questions we have or to answer the questions the citizens have for us.”
Still, Manzie said that the citizenry should be prepared for the council to vote next week. “I would not be in favor of any further postponements,” he said.