The volatile issue of annexation has been on the table in Lee County for years. Tupelo has sought an expansion of its boundaries since the mid-1990s, with stops and starts along the way, and the issues have never been fully aired in a trial. That appears set to change in 2010.

Last week, Chancery Judge Edward C. Prissock set March 29 as the trial date for Tupelo’s effort to take in more than 16 square miles and about 3,000 residents living in unincorporated areas of Lee County. He rejected motions by Lee County and Saltillo to dismiss the case on technical grounds.

Technical issues – not the substance of the annexation attempt – have derailed Tupelo’s efforts thus far. Now it appears the city and opponents will be able to fully present their arguments in court.

The process won’t be speedy; the trial is expected to take six weeks. Whatever the judge decides – and by state law it’s the judge’s decision, not a jury’s – that decision will almost certainly be appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court by the losing party. The appeal could take another year or two at least.

Tupelo residents, who are also county taxpayers, are paying for both sides of the battle. It’s unfortunate that such a costly legal confrontation couldn’t have been settled through some amicable compromise.

Nevertheless, Tupelo has no choice but to proceed with its annexation efforts. Not to do so would hinder the city’s long-term growth and viability, and that would hurt not just Tupelo but the surrounding area.

The law favors annexation in the sense that a city has only to prove that its attempt is reasonable, that it can provide services to the areas to be annexed, and that those areas lie in its natural path of growth. Tupelo’s plan certainly appears to be reasonable and not a case of overreaching.

Annexation as some sort of greedy power grab by Tupelo is an unfair characterization. Cities that are prevented from annexing, or don’t seek it, almost invariably deteriorate from within and find their tax bases shrinking and services declining. It isn’t unreasonable to ask people who live just outside city limits and benefit from the services and amenities the city provides to help pay for them.

All this would be moot if Mississippi allowed for consolidation of governments, as states like Tennessee and Florida do. If Lee County had metro government, there would be no expensive turf battles between existing governmental entities.

In the meantime, annexation will occasionally be a necessary step for municipalities – in Lee County and everywhere else.

NEMS Daily Journal

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