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Westwood residents ponder, question annexation
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Residents of the Westwood Heights subdivision just outside the Rincon city limits again face the possibility of annexation, and city council chambers were at seating capacity Monday night for a public hearing.

What’s in it for the city is an almost instant attainment of affected city status in the county, although it would come with a cost. What’s in it for the subdivision may be a long-hoped-for solution to their drainage problems.

Mayor Ken Lee acknowledged that the drainage solution might be very costly to the city and that, in fact, even if the residents voted for annexation, the city would have to look at what that cost would be before making the official decision to annex. He said the city would pay to have engineers take a look at the situation and give the city an idea of what it would take to accomplish it.

Westwood resident Valerie Sloan asked what annexation would offer the subdivision and Lee responded that one benefit would be around-the-clock police presence. Rincon Police Chief Mike Bohannon said he would have patrols devoted solely to working within Westwood, and that those officers were already on staff. He also said that property and drug crime is a larger problem in Westwood than in Rincon itself.
Bohannon said the county deputies had done a great job serving Westwood residents but “there’s just not enough of them.”

Westwood resident Paul Wiley said he wondered how all these benefits would be paid for and raised the question of whether city property taxes might come back. Lee said that while nothing is impossible, the city had been priding itself on being fiscally conservative and not having to impose property taxes.

One resident commented that since most Westwood residents shopped and paid sales taxes inside Rincon, that the city was already receiving revenue from them. Councilman Levi Scott replied that out of all the sales tax collected in Rincon, the county takes approximately 70 percent.

The discussion turned to the largest benefit to the city should Westwood decide to go for annexation — affected city status. The mayor explained that when a city goes over 9,000 residents, it attains that status. Being an affected city could be useful in negotiations with the county over various issues.  Rincon and the county are at odds over service delivery lines. Westwood subdivision currently has water and sewer service from a private utility provider, Coastal Water and Sewer.

Lee said that with the Census coming up next year, the addition of Westwood — with approximately 550 homes — would put the city, now with a population of approximately 8,000 well over that 9,000.

He also said that beyond gaining affected city status, it might help boost revenues to the city as well, since special purpose local option sales tax funds are based on population.

Rincon officials told the group that this process got started after Westwood residents inquired about annexation. From there, the city sent out a survey form to the subdivision to try to gauge interest. For annexation to be approved by the group, they must have 60 percent of their property owners, along with 60 percent of registered voters, be in favor of annexation.

If those numbers are reached, then the city would have to vote whether to annex them in. City Planner LaMeisha Hunter said the surveys that had been returned to the city were running about half in favor and half not in favor of annexation. 

Late Wednesday, City Manager Michael Phillips said that the surveys turned in so far were showing a fair number of residents interested in annexation.

“We have already had several residents of the area to come in and pick up copies of the annexation petition to take back and sign and/or get others to sign, and then return them to city hall,” Phillips said. “We have copies of the petition and copies of the information, about the advantages of being part of the city, available at city hall and the police department to anyone who is interested, and I will be glad to stop and talk to anyone who comes in to city hall and has questions.”

Phillips said because some residents of Westwood might not have gotten the information, the city would continue to accept the survey forms but hoped that people would begin to come in and sign the petition itself so it can be put in front of council at some point. He said the signatures on the petition would be good for one year.

He indicated that a rough count might be done soon and then again toward the end of the year.