Richard Pemberton once gave me a gift.
It was one of those gifts you get when you’re a kid, and you don’t appreciate right away. Things that come to mind include underwear, a savings bond, or a classic novel. When you open it, you scoff and throw it aside. Then after a few months, or even years, you realize what a great gift it was.
Pemberton, a prominent Fergus Falls attorney who died last week at the age of 87, gave me the gift of perspective.
It was in the mid-1990s. I was covering an annexation of, as I recall, Stonybrook Heights from Aurdal Township.
Prior to my interview, I had received the majority of my information in the story from city staff. As a young, green reporter, my experience at that point was stories could be written by simply getting the information from city staff. My editor at the time told me that, while my writing up to that point had potential, I was lacking perspective. I didn’t understand the “lay of the land,” he said. I was annoyed. Perspective? What was he talking about?
Back to the story. From the “perspective” of city staff, annexation was perfectly logical. Residents who lived within a close distance to the center of Fergus Falls and consistently used the services the city provided, such as the streets, parks, library or the community arena, should be part of the city and pay the property taxes that other city residents do. Why should they pay the lower township tax rate while using the city services?
My editor told me I needed to get the other viewpoint, and I should contact the attorney for the township. I knew it was the right thing to do. But I didn’t think there was anything Pemberton could say that would convince me to change my opinion.
I was wrong.
He said the argument that the residents of the proposed annexation area had an obligation to be city residents — and pay the taxes based on their use of city services — was a faulty one. He pointed to the fact that the city has a department, the Fergus Falls Convention & Visitors Bureau, designed to lure non-city residents into the city to shop in our stores, eat at our restaurants and stay in our hotels. Do those visitors not use the city streets? Parks? The community arena? Why are those who live in, say, Minneapolis, different than those who live just outside Fergus Falls city limits?
Pemberton also argued that the township had provided the residents with what they needed — roads, law enforcement, fire protection — and that the city, in essence, had nothing to offer, other than water and sewer services. If the residents did not want water and sewer services, he argued, why should they want it?
I was floored. It was a perspective I hadn’t heard before. While I thought it was irrational prior to my interview, Pemberton made it rational.
Many years later, I was one of those residents forced to be annexed. Pemberton’s arguments were clear as day at that point.
A resident of Woodland Heights, we found out that we and the rest of the neighborhood were to be annexed. The reason? Back in the early 1970s, a small group of residents requested annexation. For some reason, it took more than 40 years for the annexation to take place.
It made sense to ask for annexation back then. Cities can offer benefits of water lines, sewer lines, paved streets, and police and fire protection. The neighborhood certainly didn’t have as many houses as it did now. Had the annexation occurred back then, new residents would have welcomed the services and accepted the cost as part of building a house.
Instead, they had to figure out how to get those services on their own. They hooked up their own septic systems, dug their own wells, and with the help of the township, created paved streets and set up contracts with the county sheriff’s office and city for law enforcement and fire protection services.
Forty-some years later, when the city council decided to annex, it had nothing to offer the residents. It wanted the benefits of the annexation — property taxes and an increase in city population — knowing full well the residents would not want the services the city provides. It is highly unlikely that water and sewer services will ever be installed in Woodland Heights. From the perspective of residents, it’s simply too costly and unnecessary.
The city’s position was that Woodland Heights residents were taking advantage of the city’s services while not paying for them. My opinion was that, 40 years ago, the city was unwilling to spend what it would have taken to make Woodland Heights part of the city. Now the city wants the tax base without having to invest to provide city services.
Pemberton may have been paid to argue against annexation, but it didn’t mean he was wrong.
In this highly politically polarized era, discussions designed to change opinions simply do not happen anymore. Most people only want to argue their own point, and listen to people who will confirm their own beliefs.
I think back on my discussion with Pemberton, and I view it as a gift that I didn’t understand at the time, but still appreciate two decades later.
Joel Myhre is a Fergus Falls resident and columnist.