Asheville’s effort to take the fight against impending water and sewer merger legislation statewide has added a new wrinkle in a long-running regional battle and the potential this year for a state-mandated takeover of the city-run system.
Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson) and Rep. Nathan Ramsey (R-Buncombe) both objected to pushback on the issue by the N.C. League of Municipalities, which lobbies on behalf of cities and town in the North Carolina legislature.
The organization recently named Asheville’s fight over a potential forced water-system merger with the Metropolitan Sewerage District of Buncombe County a top concern for the legislative session. Encouraged by the league, 44 cities or towns have, as of the end of January, adopted or considered resolutions opposing the “forced taking of a water system.”
In Western North Carolina, they include Banner Elk, Blowing Rock, Franklin and Murphy. Larger cities in other parts of the state – including Concord, Jacksonville and Kannapolis – have also signed on.
Ramsey, a first-term Republican from Fairview and former chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, said Monday that he’d prefer to see a negotiated outcome handled without legislation, a point he’s stressed in reaching out to local leaders.
“If there’s some good-faith negotiation and a good effort to reach a resolution, I don’t think the need for legislation would be as great,” Ramsey said.
But with Asheville appearing to gear up for a fight in the legislature instead, he said it’s growing more likely that some kind of lawmaking will be necessary.
“It takes people willing to sit down and have a discussion,” he said.
Instead, he said the city has opted to “go to the league and hire a lobbyist.”
“They have a right to do what they want,” Ramsey said, but as a veteran of legal fights over the system, he wants to see the issue resolved ended even if it means doing so in Raleigh.
“Asheville is unlike any water system in the state,” he said. “It’s never been a city system since the ‘20s on.”
Paul Meyer, director of governmental affairs for the League of Municipalities, said the issue has resonated because it’s more that just a regional fight.
“This is the first time I’m aware of a transfer of an asset from one local government to another by legislative act,” he said. “It sets a bad precedent.”
In addition to the legal implications, Meyer said the potential of something similar happening could alter decisions on infrastructure planning and growth.
“It certainly says to other cities think twice before making any investments because the legislature can come in and undo the legislation,” Meyer said.
An issue memo to league members entitled “Efforts to Subvert Local Decisions About Municipal Water & Sewer Utilities” [PDF] accused legislators of trying to “micromanage” water systems around the state and said that, in no uncertain terms, lasts session’s bill that amends state law governing metropolitan sewer districts sets the stage for a “forced regionalization” of the Asheville water system.
McGrady, who co-sponsored the amendments along with Rep. Tim Moffitt (R-Buncombe) said the league’s language was not helpful.
“I’d characterize it as harsh,” he said.
McGrady said he wouldn’t support legislation if he believed it to be a part of a “willy-nilly” effort by the General Assembly to get involved in local water and sewer issues. Moffitt, who chaired last year’s study on the water system merger, did not respond to interview requests. The committee he chaired held a series of meetings on the issue last year before issuing a report.
“I’d point out that the Asheville water system has a unique history,” McGrady said.
McGrady said he worked on the bill late last year, particularly sections dealing with the incorporation of areas of northern Henderson County into a new system. He said the bill is now in the hands of Moffitt and Ramsey.
McGrady said last Friday he wouldn’t introduce the bill first thing this week, “but I expect it to be introduced early in the session.”
He acknowledged that it could not be introduced as a local bill since legislation on municipal water and sewerage districts is part of the state’s general statutes.
Asheville Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer, said she believes some of the lobbying and appeals to other cities and towns in the state are paying off.
She said the league’s decision to put the merger issue front and center was encouraging and an indication of greater unity among municipalities in dealing with a legislature that’s not as friendly to cities and towns and its predecessors.
“I think cities have realized that we have to operate as unit,” Manheimer, who spoke recently at a league meeting on the issue, said.
Many of her counterparts around the state, she said, see the water merger as wrong and an overreach by the General Assembly.
Manheimer, who represents Asheville on the governing board of the Metropolitan Sewerage District and has announced her upcoming bid to be Asheville’s next mayor, said she is encouraged that Ramsey and others are still interested in a negotiated outcome rather than a nasty legislative battle.
And while she respects the legal fights on water and sewer Ramsey went through as country commission chair, Manheimer said there’s no immediate need to push through a change.
“We don’t have a burning issue with the water system right now,” she said.
She pointed out that Asheville and the Metropolitan Sewer District are already cooperating on a number of levels including shared billing and some aspects of infrastructure.
“I think we’ll continue to find efficiencies,” she said.
Still, Manheimer said, there’s a growing sense that the legislation and the fight that will follow is coming — and soon.
“It’s tense right now,” she said.