Last summer, the General Assembly stripped the city of Asheville of its airport, placing it under an independent authority. Recently, Charlotte has learned that it, too, may lose control of its airport in much the same fashion. The fact that it’s been done in Asheville was cited as a clear precedent for the Charlotte action.
Today, the legislature is preparing to take another unprecedented step: seizing Asheville’s water system and placing it under an independent authority whose composition and policies are determined by the state.
As with the airport precedent, many of us believe that Asheville’s is only the first such forced taking of a municipal water system in North Carolina. The N.C. League of Municipalities is concerned as well: It is asking towns and cities to pass a resolution against the forced taking of municipal water systems. Dozens have done so. Others may simply keep their heads down and hope what is happening to Asheville won’t happen to them.
Hoping may not be enough. Last summer’s attempt to require the city of Durham to extend water service to a private development outside its boundaries is a further sign that the General Assembly intends to wade forcefully into municipal water issues.
The legislators behind the Asheville seizures have made statements suggesting that they believe any municipal water system can be taken by the state, issues of compensation notwithstanding.
Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said the seizure of Asheville’s water system has “no statewide implication,” but in practically the same breath he speculated that “somebody could decide it’s what they want anywhere.” Rep. Tim Moffitt, R-Buncombe, the primary sponsor of this effort, said that municipalities “shouldn’t be concerned about owning water systems. That is because, as public utilities, systems should be thought of as independent services for ratepayers.”
“Independent services for ratepayers.” Independent of the municipalities that built them, independent of the municipalities that in many cases depend on the revenue for fiscal survival: independent.
This innocent-sounding phrase would allow the General Assembly to advance the alleged interests of “ratepayers” ahead of the interests of the municipalities that build, own and operate the public utilities. As the Asheville, Durham and Charlotte situations so far illustrate, those interests are likely to run counter to those of the municipalities themselves.
So, despite the fact that Asheville’s water system is well-run and gets high marks from state regulators, certain legislators have decided that the “ratepayers” are somehow at risk if the city continues to operate the system. The state will step in and unilaterally take control of the system and the 20,000-acre watershed and give it to an unelected regional authority. The severe impact to the city’s budget and therefore its taxpayers doesn’t appear to be a major concern.
How many other North Carolina legislators will look at the economic players in their district and decide that the state should insert itself as referee, picking winners and losers in the natural tension between neighboring or overlapping political subdivisions?
The fact that Charlotte is now apparently going to fall victim to the airport precedent established in Asheville suggests we may also see more seizures of municipal water systems, if this new precedent is allowed.
The time is now for North Carolina towns and cities to adopt the League of Municipalities resolution opposing such seizures, and for citizens to contact their legislators to oppose this radical reshaping of our shared resources.
Former Greensboro resident Barry Summers is the author of the blog, SaveOurWaterWNC.com. He lives in Asheville.