Weatherford Democrat

December 3, 2012

Water users want annexation, representation

Christin Coyne
CNHI

PARKER COUNTY — If one group of Parker County residents have their way, the town of Annetta would soon double in population.

Some Deer Creek water system users are again organizing to try to have some say in the control of their water and sewer system — this time through annexation.  

“I think everything would be hunky dory if water users had some input on who’s on city council,” said Dennis Thompson, chairman of the board appointed to advise the town council on the water system who is also a Deer Creek system user living in unincorporated Parker County.

Some Annetta council members say they feel the council is adequately representing the water users and that there may be some overreaction based on Deer Creek’s history.    

 

Water system history

According to the numbers Thompson obtained from the city, 241 households in Annetta are not on the water system, while 243 households in Annetta are on the Deer Creek system.

A total of 482 Deer Creek meters, or 66 percent of the system, are located outside city limits. A majority of those homes are located in Annetta South’s ETJ.

However, because Annetta owns the system, the council is the group that decides who operates the system and how the system’s money is spent.

And that’s become the rub for some unincorporated area residents who believe some city leaders are looking at using the water system, which has a significantly larger budget, as a funding source for other city goals without listening to concerns of their customers.

All or nearly all council members are on private wells, a fact not lost on some critics of recent council proposals, who say recent meetings in Annetta bring to mind previous contention with Willow Park during recent litigation. Willow Park purchased the system and was sued by the group of affected homeowners and the other East Parker County cities before eventually selling it to Annetta in 2010. During the contentious years, the Willow Park council imposed rate hikes and customers complained about the quality of system management but had no say in Willow Park elections, said Steve Barron, a Deer Creek customer who lives outside Annetta city limits and was involved in the fight with Willow Park at the time.

“Our concern is how many ways are you going to split the pie,” Barron said, adding that there was talk about obligating money to hire a city administrator at a recent Annetta meeting.

Comments from council members about where funds for a new city building will come from have also fueled the controversy.

“Here we are coming back again, and we have no representation because we live in the ETJ of Annetta South,” Barron said.

Despite a group of people that recommended a previous council candidate and current Deer Creek user to fill a recently vacated position, the city council appointed someone else without discussion, Barron said.

After the meeting, statements by one council member regarding the number of non-residents who spoke led them to believe that they are second-class citizens, Barron said. “That means our opinion is the equivalent of no opinion.”



City issues

One council member has already resigned over the divide between Deer Creek users and some council members.

Witnesses say former council member Jamie Harris raised his voice at a Deer Creek area resident who voiced his opinion during a recent water system advisory board meeting. The day after the man spoke about the incident in a subsequent Annetta council meeting, Harris resigned.

“I left because we were simply not making any progress,” Harris said, adding that he has been trying to move the city forward but there is a tremendous amount of divisiveness.

Harris believes the divide is natural because half the town residents are on the water system and half are not.

City officials were spending about 90 percent of their time discussing water system-related issues rather than dealing with other things that need to be addressed, according to Harris.

One of those things is the hall building that the city has been leasing that is not ADA or OSHA compliant, Harris said, leaving the city open to lawsuits.

Harris said he has had to carry his mother up the stairs to vote.

“The only reason the city needs a building at all is the water system,” Harris said, saying that they have gone from a part-time employee in the office two days a week to a full-time employee and a part-time employee at the city hall, now open five days.

Since the city began leasing the building many years ago, they have added about 100 new homes, according to Annetta Mayor Bruce Pinckard. Residents come to the building for building permits, platting requirements and other information, as well as water billing. The water system pays rent for that use, which began last spring.

The current building was never intended to be used by the general public, and now city meetings are averaging about 30 people, Pinckard said.

Some council members invested time in researching some options that were recently presented to the council, Pinckard said, adding he doesn’t believe the city can afford to do a large project.

The people on the water system heard that if the city does this plan, they’ll be able to charge it to the water system, and the pitchforks came out, according to Pinckard.

“Officially, the council has not made that decision,” Pinckard said.

“It’s disappointing that all the people expressing their opinion weren’t citizens but that’s the way it was,” Harris said of a recent city meeting where many concerned Deer Creek residents attended and spoke.



A better operation

Under the ownership of Annetta and the operational management of Hudson Oaks, they’ve been making significant headway in dealing with major supply and storage issues, according to Deer Creek users. They have struggled with restrictive water rationing measures and dying trees and landscaping for years because the system could not meet the need. Earlier this year, the council OK’d a $1 million bond issuance to begin tackling those problems.

Complaints, once common under the management of Willow Park, are nonexistent under Hudson Oaks’ oversight, Thompson said.

“We don’t have any pressure issues any more,” Thompson said. “Repairs get made immediately. They quickly addressed all the issues with the sewer system [near Stuard Elementary].”

Those promoting annexation in Deer Creek say they want those improvements to continue and fear council members spending the system’s money differently could affect those gains.  

The council recently directed the appointed board to look at taking on operation of the system when the three-year contract (which has a possible two-year extension) with Hudson Oaks ends at the end of 2013, Thompson said.

“Hudson Oaks has done a great job, and I guarantee you it would cost three times for us to operate in-house,” Thompson said, adding that Annetta does not currently have anyone with the expertise of Hudson Oaks Assistant City Administrator Patrick Lawler or the money to hire someone with that knowledge.

Pinckard said the city currently gets a great deal of benefit in the current situation.

“If we were premature, we’d have to start all over,” said Pinckard, who added Hudson Oaks has expressed a willingness to work with Annetta, though they understand Hudson Oaks does not want to be the long-term operator, either.

The council has not made any decisions and wants to see what the cost would be if they did it on their own, according to Pinckard.

Pinckard also addressed fears that the city is seeking to hire a city administrator  who might be tied to the water system using funds from Deer Creek to pay for it, an idea reportedly floated by some council members.

“There’s no way we have the money,” Pinckard said, adding that the city is dedicated to putting the Deer Creek revenue right back in for improvements and maintenance to the system, which had been neglected for years.



Annexation as a solution?

“We just want an adequate supply of water and we want good water,” Thompson said, adding that they enjoy the open space and canopy of trees on the drive to Aledo as much as Annetta residents.

In addition to allowing them to elect who decides how the system’s money is spent, annexation would allow them to prepare for future water needs as the area grows, Thompson said. “Drilling water wells is not the long term solution to our water problem. We’re going to have to get some surface water somewhere.”

Pinckard sees the annexation issue as an opportunity for Annetta residents to gain more control of development that is coming to the area and manage the growth for the benefit of the area.

“We ought to be a community that gets along, that works together,” Pinckard said, adding that while not everyone will get what they want all the time, a rising tide lifts all boats.

“While my first priority is citizens of Annetta, it seems to me what’s good for the community is good for the City of Annetta,” Pinckard said.

The last two times the city has been approached by those looking to be annexed, the reasons given were related to zoning, not services, Pinckard said, adding that there is a desire by those just outside the city limits to have some municipal control regarding development.

Residents of Annetta will still be affected by growth and development in the unincorporated areas nearby but don’t have a say on what happens outside the city limits, according to Pinckard.

There are some in the community who have complained that the area isn’t the same as it was years ago but have done nothing to manage the growth, Pinckard said.

Towns grow or die, Pinckard said. “If we are proactive, we can manage the growth in a way that the community can benefit.”

Giving everybody affected by the council’s decisions a seat at the table and treating them equally is also important, according to Pinckard.

“They are not citizens but they are still our customers,” Pinckard said.

His personal opinion is that, if there is a legal way to do it, the customers should purchase the system themselves, Harris said.

Harris said he thinks those looking to be annexed are going to have a tremendous amount of trouble getting it done and doesn’t think it fixes the problem.

While he doesn’t think annexation is bad conceptually, Harris said, “there’s just not a light at the end of that tunnel.”

Those not on the water system have a different focus on what they need from city government, such as road improvement, managing green space and dealing with increasing crime, Harris said,

The city will have additional roads they are responsible for but won’t gain much additional revenue because there is no property tax, he said.

Asked what he thought about the issue of annexation and the water system, council member Farrar Patterson said, “As far as the water system goes, it’s unnecessary. We’re doing everything we can do to get it improved.”

“A few people are stirring up some hysteria,” Patterson described the dissent, adding he believes the council is representing water customers adequately, even more than adequately, with the system purchase and bond issuance.



Going forward

Thompson said they are currently focusing on the first of the two petitions needed. They hope to present enough signatures at the next Annetta South city council meeting to be released from the town’s ETJ claim, something the council has verbally supported.   

“I personally have been involved with legal actions [concerning the Deer Creek system] for several years,” Annetta South Mayor Pro Tem William Gordon said. “I’ve told this Parker County citizens’ group that they should petition to become residents of Annetta when Annetta purchased the system from Willow Park. I told them I would work to support their efforts.”

They are attempting to be annexed in time to field candidates for the May election, according to Thompson.

An Annetta city council workshop has also been scheduled for Tuesday at 7 p.m.