ASHEVILLE — City officials have hired lobbyists, enlisted the aid of N.C. League of Municipalities and gotten support from 40 local governments statewide in their fight to keep control of Asheville’s water system.
But it’s anyone’s guess whether that will matter much to the Republican-controlled General Assembly, which is engaged in disputes with cities and towns on a range of issues — from control over airports to decisions on land use.
“Now that the city has taken this so externally, I don’t frankly feel any need to talk to city officials,” said Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson.
A legislative study committee led by state Rep. Tim Moffitt, R-Buncombe, said last year that the General Assembly should mandate transfer of the water system to the Metropolitan Sewerage District.
Moffitt said he wanted to make sure water customers living outside of Asheville wouldn’t face the possibility of being charged higher rates than city residents.
The system serves 125,000 water customers in Buncombe and Henderson counties, and city officials fear losing the system would halt headway made on repairs to an aging system and eliminate what could be used as a way curb suburban sprawl.
Local officials were given the chance to work out an agreement to unify the systems before the state steps in. No local agreement appears imminent.
Moffitt has yet to introduce a bill to force the change, but said he expects to by the end of the month.
As part of their strategy, city officials have worked to get other municipalities involved, arguing that a forced transfer would set a precedent that could lead to similar actions affecting other cities and towns.
“I think we’re all kind of taking a leap of faith and figuring out how to approach the legislature,” said City Councilwoman Esther Manheimer, who has been a key player in the city’s efforts on the issue.
Moffitt and other Republican legislators said city officials have hurt their cause.
“I would say that the city’s actions probably are ... giving me more support,” Moffitt said.
Manheimer said the goal of opposing legislation that weakens or removes local control over public utilities got the most votes from municipal representatives during a Jan. 24 meeting of the League of Municipalities. The meeting was held to set priorities for the legislative session.
The governing boards of about 40 cities or towns have passed a version of a League resolution asking the legislature not to force the transfer of a municipal water system to another entity.
It says that the municipalities are “opposed to the forced taking of any local government infrastructure because such taking sets a dangerous precedent that will have a chilling effect on any local government investing in needed infrastructure in the future.”
“Everyone I talk to at these meetings, no matter what city they’re from, they know about this issue and they usually have a concern of their own” about some action the General Assembly could take to affect their municipality, Manheimer said.
City and town leaders are weighing just how vocal they should be, Manheimer said.
“There are definitely folks out there being threatened with repercussions,” she said.
The previous General Assembly faced off with municipalities on other issues, including limitations on cities’ ability to annex.
Legislative leaders also have attacked a deal to make state land a Raleigh park and there have been legislative efforts to force Durham to supply water to a development outside its city limits.
Charlotte officials last week said they are concerned about talks among legislators to turn Charlotte Douglas International Airport, currently a city department, into an independent government agency.
Asheville Regional Airport, which became an independent agency last year at Moffitt’s behest, was cited as a precedent.
Larger cities “each have their own thing that they’re just biting their nails over,” Manheimer said.
Word about the Asheville water issue seems to be getting around the Legislative Building, said Paul Meyer, director of governmental affairs for the League of Municipalities and its top lobbyist.
“I know (legislators) are hearing from city officials because I’ve had legislators ask me about the issue,” he said.
Noting that there is an unusually large number of freshman legislators this year, Meyer said the past two years will not necessarily predict what the General Assembly will do in the next two.
“Every General Assembly takes on its own personality based on its membership,” he said.
City Council approved a $60,000 contract Nov. 27 with a law firm to lobby the legislature on its behalf.
Moffitt and McGrady, the Republican legislator from Henderson County, each said fellow legislators have asked them about the water issue as a result of contact from municipalities in the other legislators’ districts. Both said they didn’t think the effort has changed many minds.
“In large measure, the people that are coming to support the city ... were the same people that were against the General Assembly stopping forced annexation,” Moffitt said. “When you align yourself with the same cast of characters, you shouldn’t expect a different result.”
McGrady said he has fielded questions from colleagues and said two had approached him Thursday about the water issue because a town in their district had passed a resolution on it.
“The League of Municipalities has gotten all sorts of people stirred up because of what the city is doing,” he said.
He called the effort counterproductive and said the League had been ineffective in winning battles in the General Assembly over the past couple of years.
McGrady said that last fall and early this year he had engaged in some “shuttle diplomacy” with local officials on the issue but no longer feels the need to do that.
Rep. Nathan Ramsey, R-Buncombe, said he would rather see city officials negotiate a solution with MSD instead of fighting a transfer in the legislature.
“My thought would be that instead of hiring lobbyists and going down this track, they should sit down ... and try to work these issues out,” he said.
“I’ve had folks on the city say, ‘It doesn’t look like the General Assembly’s going to move and you’re going to do what you’re going to do,’ ” Ramsey said. “My response is, ‘It doesn’t look like the city is going to move.’