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'I'm asking you to help'

At first deannexation hearing, Anniston residents mostly united against split

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A large crowd was on hand during the first of two Annexit meetings on Anniston's Ward 4 deannexation at the Anniston City Meeting Center. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

Stepping up to the microphone, Anniston resident Pamela Duey asked the question that was likely on everyone’s mind. 

“How many people are truly against this deannexation?” Duey asked. “Let Sen. Del Marsh know.”

Duey turned to look at the audience of more than 200 people. 

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Some members of the audience raise their hands indicating that the do not want to deannex during the first of two Annexit meetings on Anniston's Ward 4 deannexation at the Anniston City Meeting Center. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

Most of the people in the audience raised their hands. 

Duey and a crowd of Anniston residents gathered at the Anniston City Meeting Center Tuesday night for the first of two meetings on the proposal known as Annexit — a plan to pass a state law that would move City Council Ward 4 and some nearby neighborhoods out of city limits. 

A group of Ward 4 residents began calling for an exit by the ward, one of four in the city, last summer. 

Marsh, the Anniston Republican who leads the state Senate, has never said he’d sponsor such a bill. But he did put legislative staff to work researching the Ward 4 plan last year. And he did call a pair of public meetings — one Tuesday and another set for Thursday night — to hear local residents’ opinions on the idea. 

At the opening of Tuesday’s meeting, he said that the city has problems that need investigation, no matter the outcome of Annexit. 

“Anniston’s population has been declining,” Marsh said. “The question is, what’s happening?”

Marsh spoke little and opened the floor for comments from the crowd. One of the first speakers was Charles Turner, a leader of Forward 4 All, the nonprofit that is pushing for the deannexation

Turner said Ward 4 residents lost “a whole lot of equity” because home prices in Anniston have failed to rise. Supporters of the deannexation proposal in the past have attributed the low prices largely to dissatisfaction with city’s schools — and they’ve proposed leaving the city as a solution.

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Forward 4 All spokesman Charles Turner speaks during the first of two Annexit meetings on Anniston's Ward 4 deannexation at the Anniston City Meeting Center. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

“A house in Anniston would not sell for the same price as the same house in Oxford,” he said. 

Turner and other Annexit supporters appeared to be vastly outnumbered by speakers who wanted to keep the city together. Those same speakers often spoke passionately in support of the city’s schools, saying Annexit organizers should volunteer in local schools instead of trying to escape them.

“I’m not even asking you to send your kids to Anniston High School,” said former mayor Bill Robison. “I’m asking you to help Anniston High School.”

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Ex Anniston Mayor Bill Robison comments during the first of two Annexit meetings on Anniston's Ward 4 deannexation at the Anniston City Meeting Center. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

Robison repeatedly referred to the Annexit supporters as a “gang of five,” an apparent reference to the original incorporators of Forward 4 All. It’s unclear how many supporters the group has, but only a handful of speakers seemed to support deannexation at Tuesday’s meeting. 

“I don’t think it’s our school system that’s holding us back,” said Paul Street, who moved into town from Eastaboga in the mid-1990s. He told the crowd he was “very interested” in deannexation, largely because of the slow pace of progress in Anniston.

“Oxford’s not thriving because of Leon Smith,” he said. “It’s thriving because of the interstate and the dysfunction in Anniston city government.”

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Anniston Board of Education President Robert Houston speaks during the first of two Annexit meetings on Anniston's Ward 4 deannexation at the Anniston City Meeting Center. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

Opponents said the loss of Ward 4 would hobble the city financially. They questioned what would happen to police and fire protection if the ward left the city. Some said Annexit supporters should vote with their feet but leave the city boundary where it is.

“If somebody wants to move out of Anniston, if they don’t like Anniston, let them move out of Anniston,” said Lowndes Butler, a descendant of city founder Sam Noble. 

Both sides have brought the city’s police and fire pension plan into the debate. Annexit opponents say the pension plan could collapse if the city lost the revenue Ward 4 brings. Supporters of the deannexation argue that the pension plan, which fell behind on payments, is headed for bankruptcy anyway. 

Marsh called city financial officer Cory Salley to the microphone to discuss the pension dilemma. Salley explained that the city did fall behind on payments but is now funding the pension plan at an accelerated pace to fill in the gap. 

Turner quizzed Salley on the fund, saying that the city hasn’t made the actuary’s full recommended contribution to the plan in years. 

Weaver Mayor Wayne Willis — who is also a retired Anniston police officer and former member of the city’s pension board — said that “the statement that the fund is collapsing is false.” He said he opposed the Annexit proposal.

“If Anniston does well, great for Anniston,” he said. “If Anniston collapses, it creates trouble for all of us.”

Marsh said he believed the pension fund did warrant a closer look.

“We’ve got to find the problem,” Marsh said.

Mayor Jack Draper, at the end of the meeting, said he was encouraged by the unity shown by the crowd — and the many appeals to residents to get involved in the school system.

“It appears the vast majority of people want to stay in the city and want to roll their sleeves up,” he said. 

Marsh will hold a second meeting on the Annexit proposal Thursday at 6 p.m. at Norwood Hodges Community Center, roughly in the center of Ward 4. 

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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