Raleigh, N.C. — The state House gave tentative approval Thursday to remove Asheville's water system from the city's authority and put it under the governance of a regional board.
House Bill 488 was approved by a vote of 68-42 along mostly partisan lines, with four Republicans joining House Democrats in opposition, though sponsor Nathan Ramsey, R-Buncombe, insisted the measure "is not a partisan issue back home."
The proposal would set up a Metropolitan District that would be governed by an appointed board. The board would have the power to issue bonds, determine tax rates, set utility rates and charges and have right-of-way and easement authority.
Primary sponsor Rep. Tim Moffitt, R-Buncombe, says the bill strictly forbids privatization, one of the concerns of the bill's opponents.
"This is an effort to bring our community together," said Ramsey. "I know the city has some concerns about this bill and are opposed to this bill, but at the end of the day, this bill will have the effect of solving some long-term problems."
Co-sponsor Rep. Chuck McGrady, R- Henderson, said those problems have become "a festering regional dispute.”
The city and its surrounding areas have battled for decades over water rights.
“Asheville has a history of using water as a weapon against its neighbors," McGrady said. "That has precipitated several interventions by the legislature.”
He accused the city of "scare tactics" in its opposition to the bill, calling its accusations of unfair treatment "poppycock."
"They’re just not telling the whole truth. This isn’t about privatization. It’s about protecting a valuable resource," McGrady said. "The equities are not with the city of Asheville. The city has been a bad neighbor. “
But Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe, said the proposal is the uncompensated and unfair seizure of a taxpayer-funded asset.
"This is a piece of legislation coming from people who live outside the city of Asheville, and is primarily based on distortion of facts," she said. "It gives the power to raise taxes and raise water rates to an appointed board – not an elected board – that is not accountable to voters."
Fisher said rural areas would have disproportionate representation on the proposed authority board.
Henderson County, which represents 0.02 percent of the system's water accounts, would get 20 percent of board seats – "the same number as Asheville that has 56 percent of the water accounts," Fisher noted.
Henderson County is represented by McGrady and Senate Rules Committee Chairman Tom Apodaca.
Fisher said the city has invested more than $70 million in the system since 2005, and the resulting water quality has been high enough to attract two breweries and hundreds of jobs in recent years.
"We do not need to tear down this economic engine that is working," she said.
The bill doesn't just apply to Asheville. Its broadly drawn qualifications could force water system handovers in several municipal areas across the state. More than 60 cities have passed resolutions opposing the measure.
"This is not about Asheville," Fisher said. "Cities will see the same legislation coming to their towns."
There were apparently quite a few lawmakers who shared that concern. Rep. Skip Stam, R-Wake, amended the bill to clarify that it does not apply to Wake County and added a stipulation that local boards in other counties would have to choose to opt into a system.
The final House vote on the measure is scheduled for Monday night. After that, it moves to the Senate.