MTD approaches annexation with community in mind
BY Don Uchtmann and Linda Bauer
Proposed annexations involve property taxes, which are always controversial. Annexation hearings recently conducted by the MTD Board of Trustees, and a recent News-Gazette editorial, remind us of this general truth.
A complicating factor is that parks, public schools, libraries, police and fire departments, and public transit, for example, provide direct and indirect benefits. Some residents benefit directly, e.g., those walking through a park, public school students, library patrons, a resident whose home is saved by the fire department and those riding the bus.
But the entire community also benefits from its public infrastructure. People and employers are attracted to communities with green space, good public schools and libraries, well-trained police and firefighters, and good public transit — even if the resident does not utilize each service. Don't we all benefit by living in a community where employees can get to work, students to school and patients to their doctors, or when we can choose among different transportation modes? Don't we all benefit when the disabled and seniors unable to drive can lead full, rich lives, or when public transit replaces cars on the streets, frees up parking spaces, reduces traffic congestion and improves air quality? Or when public transit conveys university students to local businesses where they spend money and generate sales tax revenue? (Students also rent apartments and indirectly pay property taxes.) Public transit benefits us all — directly or indirectly.
As our community grows, should adjacent areas be annexed into the districts that provide public infrastructure? MTD faces this question as it considers areas for annexation. The board attempts to approach this question fairly and in the best interest of our entire community. MTD trustees are guided by state law, a Long Range Transportation Plan, intergovernmental agreements and board policy that has been consistent since 2000.
Illinois statutes give MTD authority to annex territory adjacent to the district and meeting certain criteria. The statutory annexation procedure includes a public hearing. A vote of the citizens in the area proposed for annexation is not part of the procedure. Is this good law? The implicit assumption seems to be that citizens just outside a district boundary probably already receive many of the communitywide benefits of public transit. They may also enjoy direct benefits merely by crossing the street to catch a bus within the district boundary. Although many just outside the district may prefer the status quo and oppose annexation, would deferring to them be fair to taxpayers living within the district?
A Long Range Transportation Plan has been developed by representatives of Champaign, Urbana, Savoy, Champaign County, the Illinois Department of Transportation, University of Illinois, Champaign County Regional Planning Commission and MTD. The plan calls for the MTD service area to be co-terminus with the boundaries of the jurisdictions it serves. And MTD's agreements with elected representatives of Champaign, Urbana and Savoy call for MTD to annex new areas after they have been annexed by the municipality.
At the heart of the Long Range Transportation Plan and intergovernmental agreements is recognition that public transportation should serve the entire urbanized area and be supported, in part, by property taxpayers in our entire community. This guiding principle was also expressed by citizens representing our community when they, by referendum, voted to create and publicly support public transit.
Property taxpayers are important to our public transit system. They provide about one-sixth of the district's revenue and, along with our riders, provide local funds essential to leveraging MTD's strong state and federal support. Those who pay property taxes help make our community a terrific place to live, the kind of community that attracts the best and the brightest, and a community that we are proud to call home.
As the MTD board considers new areas for annexation, it will be guided by existing laws, agreements and long-range plans. The board will also strive for consistency in its decisions, transparency and fairness to the residents of our entire community. Unfortunately, we don't all agree about what is fair — especially when taxes are involved. But hopefully we all will continue to respect those with opposing views — however we may view the fairness of a particular annexation.
Don Uchtmann is the chair of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District Board of Trustees. Linda Bauer is vice chair.