This commentary originally appeared in the San Antonio Express-News on October 20, 2015.
It is as true in government as it is in sports: Changing the rules of the game after it has already begun is inherently unfair.
In America, government authority is limited by “the consent of the governed”; government ought not inflict itself on unrepresented individuals and interfere with their property rights. Yet, as 200,000 Bexar County residents can attest, that is precisely what the city of San Antonio is considering.
Without consulting the affected property owners, San Antonio has plans to annex more than 66 square miles of land, forcing their urban services and higher taxes on the prospective residents.
These residents deliberately chose to purchase homes and businesses outside the city limits of San Antonio. They signed on for a specific bill of goods and consented to specific authority. Changing the rules of the game through forced annexation is unfair and poor public policy.
Forced annexation flies in the face of Texas’ traditional respect for property rights. Texas recognizes that landowners are not bound by encumbrances unless they have notice at the time of purchase. Restrictions on the property’s use may only be enacted later if the owner consents. This is common sense: You can’t change the rules of the game halfway through. Yet, the state of Texas encourages such rule-changing by allowing cities to annex the property of unwilling landowners.
San Antonio defends its annexation plans, citing the urban “benefits” the city already provides outlying areas and arguing that annexation “allows the city to recoup costs.” However, the facts belie this claim.
San Antonio does not provide police, firefighting, ambulance or road repair services outside city limits. In fact, like most cities, San Antonio will likely rely on bonds to support the costs of extending services to newly annexed areas. Bonds to extend services would not be necessary if the city was simply “recouping costs.”
To make matters worse, these new bonds will worsen the city’s already considerable debt burden — San Antonio taxpayers right now owe a total of $17.1 billion in city debt and more than $600 million in unfunded pension liabilities — without necessarily improving the services provided. As cities annex more and more land, they tend to spend less per capita on services, straining and diluting existing resources.
Meanwhile, unchecked annexation policies put current and prospective city residents at the mercy of an increasingly powerful centralized government. History has shown that such concentrations of power yield bad results. James Madisonrecognized this danger more than two centuries ago: “In all legislative assemblies the greater the number composing them may be, the fewer will be the men who will in fact direct their proceedings. … The countenance of the government may become more democratic, but the soul that animates it will be more oligarchic.”
Madison’s point resonates in Bexar County. Whether or not the extension of urban services is perceived to be beneficial to annexed residents, San Antonio should not force new terms on unrepresented property owners. Regardless of intent, a centralized power unilaterally changing the rules of the game is tyranny. And tyranny is poor public policy.