Hell or high water: Rep. Nathan Ramsey wades straight into the fray

A seat at the circus: Months into his first term, freshman state Rep. Nathan Ramsey has quickly learned the ropes. He has also stepped into the fray, signing onto controversial measures that belie his genial demeanor.
A seat at the circus: Months into his first term, freshman state Rep. Nathan Ramsey has quickly learned the ropes. He has also stepped into the fray, signing onto controversial measures that belie his genial demeanor.

It's 7:30 a.m. on a Friday, and in the blue light of the mostly shuttered Biltmore Square Mall food court, folks attending the Council of Independent Business Owners breakfast are just finishing their biscuits and gravy.

State Rep. Nathan Ramsey says he’s happy to be back in the mountains. “A little cooler up here,” he says. “Closer to heaven; farther from hell, which is Raleigh.”

The freshman Republican's been busy down there. He ticks off a list of issues, explaining his positions and what he hopes to accomplish: lower gas taxes, force a merger of Asheville's water system with the Metropolitan Sewerage District, find better ways to fund infrastructure, support workforce education.

Then Rep. Tim Moffitt takes the stage, joking that Ramsey's laundry list is the reason he doesn't like to hand off the mic to freshman legislators. Asked by CIBO to stick around after the program is over, Moffitt declines with a brusque “I've got a real job to get to.” Ramsey, however, stays to chat with the audience, which includes many Buncombe County commissioners and Asheville City Council members along with other constituents.

In an April 3 phone interview from Raleigh, Ramsey muses, “It seems like just yesterday it was January, when we came down here to get sworn in. I felt fairly comfortable that I wouldn't be overwhelmed coming down here, but the breadth of topics you discuss and consider is incredible.”

And newcomer or not, the affable Republican has already sparked plenty of controversy with his legislative proposals.

Out of the frying pan

Since January, the Buncombe County native has spent plenty of time in “hell.” It’s quite a shift for the genial dairy farmer and attorney, whose stint as chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners ended in 2008, when colleague David Gantt derailed the moderate Republican’s re-election bid.

During that campaign, Ramsey tried to appeal to Democrats who supported Barack Obama for president. And as Republicans, both locally and nationally, moved to the right, Ramsey mostly kept a low profile.

But in 2012, after redistricting put Reps. Patsy Keever and Susan Fisher in the same district and Keever chose to run for Congress rather than oppose her fellow Democrat, Ramsey won Keever's former seat (which now covers eastern Buncombe County) by a sizable margin.

Learning curve

In county government, Ramsey says he liked being a generalist, doing “a little bit of everything.” But veteran legislators in Raleigh, he tells Xpress, “remind you that you need to focus and specialize, because if you don't, it's going to be very hard to get bills through.”

Accordingly, Ramsey has homed in on education, particularly workforce development.

“It's hard to start from scratch and, in one session, do a really complex bill,” he notes. “But I really want to find ways to help people in one of the most stressful times in their lives: when they're getting back into the workforce. We're not the kind of state anymore where you have one job for 30 years. People are going to have five or six jobs. We need to help them get retraining. Even with the high unemployment, there's many jobs employers say they can't find workers for. With the money we have, we need to do that.”

Ramsey is also working with the N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition to try to find an additional $3 billion to $4 billion for infrastructure needs, stop transfers from the Highway Trust Fund, and replace the gas tax (which he wants lowered to match South Carolina's) with other revenue streams, such as an increased registration fee for vehicles.

“As people continue to downsize their vehicles, the gas-tax revenues are going to continue to decline,” he predicts. “Perhaps we could gauge the registration increase based on miles per gallon. We're a growing state, and we've got to keep up with our infrastructure or we're going to be left behind.”

Even in a deeply divided Legislature, Ramsey touts his ability to work across the aisle, something he says he learned “serving with four Democrats on the Board of Commissioners.” In particular, he continues, Rep. Larry Hall, a Democratic leader, “has always been really nice to me.”

Ramsey also points to his cooperation with Fisher on things like redistricting reform, changing the rules for appointments to A-B Tech's governing board and getting more representation for the region on the UNC system's board of governors. In addition, he sees potential for cooperation on improving local emergency services.

As for the boundary between state and local government, Ramsey says he prefers it when local bills are uncontroversial. “In a perfect world, local folks could get their own agreements,” he notes. But accomplishing that, he continues, can be “challenging. I've sat in those seats.”

Into the fire

But Ramsey's polite demeanor and self-deprecating humor stand in sharp contrast to the controversy sparked by the bills he's proposed. Although much of the flak from progressives and city officials has focused on Moffitt, Ramsey has co-sponsored and vocally supported much of the same legislation, which critics say damages municipalities and tramples on local governments’ authority.

“Reasonable people can differ,” Ramsey told his audience at the CIBO breakfast, but the debates about his proposals have often turned acrimonious. For example, Asheville officials and residents alike say the proposed water legislation, when combined with other GOP-backed measures, will create a budget hole that could force the city to pull the plug on everything from Saturday bus service to funding for the WNC Nature Center.

And though Ramsey has repeatedly said he wants to find ways to address Asheville’s legitimate concern about lost revenue, so far, he’s shied away from indicating how that might be done.

Local officials, meanwhile, say Ramsey's calm manner and insistence that he doesn't “want to run everything out of Raleigh” belie what they see as the devastating consequences of his actions. Given the state legislation’s likely impact on the city’s budget, Council member Marc Hunt has compared Ramsey's assertions to “negotiating with a gun to our head.” Other officials have called those bills “vindictive,” and Council member Gordon Smith said he'd like Raleigh to "take the boot off our neck.”

Ramsey maintains that the forced water merger would simply correct what he perceives as a historical misstep: Asheville's bitter 2005 divorce from the Regional Water Authority. Conceding that the move is “controversial,” the legislator, who chaired the county Board of Commissioners during that period, says: “If it could have been solved locally, it would have been. There's a point where you can't kick the can down the road anymore.”

Joining the circus

North Carolina’s diversity makes crafting legislation a greater challenge at the state level, says Ramsey. “What works in one area may not work in another. You've got very poor, rural areas; very large urban areas; areas in between. There's a vast amount of differences. What works in Wake may not work in McDowell or Henderson.”

He also misses “sleeping in your own bed,” though he says he's finding common ground with lawmakers who share his interests or his farm background.

Still, Ramsey concludes, “You come down and serve with 169 other people. It's like a circus.”

— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or dforbes@mountainx.com.

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23 thoughts on “Hell or high water: Rep. Nathan Ramsey wades straight into the fray

  1. D. Dial

    I’ve done a blog page that covers news articles and commentary of our water history from 1998 forward. I’ve attempted to keep it non-partisan and non-divisive. It has video links of the 2012 Water forum at Grace Covenant Church and links to many articles.
    http://davynedial.blogspot.com/

  2. bsummers

    One item curiously omitted from the “history” presented by those seeking to wrench the water system from the City of Asheville: The Water Mediation Evaluation report done after the failed 2005 attempt to negotiate a solution between the City and the County:

    http://tinyurl.com/b9tfamf

    “The most difficult external barrier to a negotiated outcome came from the local legislative
    delegation. The existence of the proposed bills, Sullivan II and III, during the mediation
    profoundly changed the dynamics of the negotiations. The key issues of growth control and
    differential pricing suddenly became non-negotiable. This change in negotiation dynamics leads directly to the third hypothesis, that there was no viable bargaining range between the two parties.

    “In effect, the balance of power in the negotiation was tilted toward the county and the ZOPA (Zone of Possible Agreement) was reduced to the point that an agreement was highly unlikely.”

    They’re talking about the fact that the County (under Nathan’s leadership) came to the table with the proverbial “gun” to put to the City’s “head.” And then they were shocked, shocked that the City walked away from this bad faith negotiating tactic. That’s not me saying that, that’s the conclusion reached by outside mediation professionals with no dog in the fight. This has been the style of this “genial dairy farmer and attorney” as the XPress fawningly calls him, from the beginning.

    Speaking of XPress, as referred to in the article, reporter David Forbes and editor Margaret Williams were at the April 5th CIBO breakfast. Two things – first of all, Rep. Moffitt didn’t rush out because he “had a real job to do” – he stayed for 20 or 30 minutes after speaking, talking privately – just not on the record. Secondly, this is what he did say on the record – he downplayed the fact that the $200,000 MSD report shows that a merger will not save money, but it will actually cost money:

    “Neither you nor I have the gift of predicting the future. So studies are exactly what they are, numbers are exactly what they are.”

    http://tinyurl.com/bx6xwyt

    Huh? Why pay $200,000 of ratepayer money for a study if you’re going to ignore the results, or mock them for trying to “predict the future”? It was a priceless moment, seeing the faces at that CIBO breakfast (a friendly crowd for Moffitt & Ramsey) react to that statement. Eyebrows were raised, is the way I would put it.

    But XPress chose not to report that Rep. Moffitt casually dismissed the results of the MSD study. Curious.

    • ScottJ

      Hey Barry- Two questions. Do you have a link for that MSD report (is it on your SaveOurWater site and I’m just blind?)? Second, do you believe this Bill violates Article 2, 24 (1a) “sanitation”? That’s an interesting word/term. I’ll have to dig and see how the NC Courts have interpreted it; if they have included water systems in the past. Thanks.

    • bsummers

      Scott

      http://www.msdbc.org/documents/waterstudy/final/FinalMergerStudy032013.pdf

      And yes, I do believe that H488 violates the NC State Constitution. Mind you, it was first suggested that it did by none other than Speaker Pro Tem Paul “Skip” Stam (R. Wake County), in the House Finance Committee. None of the amendments since then have addressed that unconstitutionality, and Rep. Moffitt is clearly worried about it, if you listen to the way he answered questions in the Senate Finance Comm. yesterday.

      Here’s my take on how it went down in the House, from listening to the audio & talking to people who were there:

      http://tinyurl.com/aou93jg

  3. Meiling Dai

    H769 Zoning/limit Manufactured Home Restrictions was sponsored by Rep. Nathan Ramsey and other lawmakers. It removes zoning restrictions for manufactured homes on individual lots. Currently, a person may own an individual lot and want to put a manufactured home on it for a “loved one” but is prevented from doing so because of zoning.
    H769 will change that by striking down zoning restrictions for manufactured homes.
    Manufactured homes are no longer unattractive deteriorating structures. They are equivalent in appearance and construction to site-built homes. Since they are constructed in factories, their cost per square foot is lower than a site-built home. Manufactured homes on individual lots are typically required to have permanent foundations and are an affordable alternative to site-built homes. H769 is a bill that is long overdue. Please ask your state representatives to support H769!

    • Dionysis

      “Manufactured homes are no longer unattractive deteriorating structures. They are equivalent in appearance and construction to site-built homes. Since they are constructed in factories, their cost per square foot is lower than a site-built home.”

      You seem to be confusing ‘manufactured homes’ (the less negative word now being used to denote ‘trailers’) with ‘modular homes’. Manufactured homes are still basically the same unattractive rectangles they’ve always been. They are not “equivalent” to site-built homes, although modular homes are; in fact, it seems you’ve simply copied-and-pasted standard sales verbiage found in modular home websites and replaced the word ‘modular’ with ‘manufactured’.

    • Dionysis

      Oh, and in addition, try and find bank or other conventional financing for a ‘manufactured’ home, and see how easy and cheap it is to insure one. If these metal boxes were “equivalent” to site-built homes, they would not immediately depreciate and essentially turn into junk metal over time.

  4. Valerie Hoh

    Thank you Barry for pointing out that study. I don’t really blame people for not understanding the big picture of what happened with the water history because Reps. Moffitt, McGrady and Ramsey have done a good job of pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes, including Ms Dial, who can talk about the history of the water problems all she wants but when the solution put forward by HB488 is a cudgel and ignores the lessons to be learnt by that history, then the solution itself becomes a big problem for both the County and the City.

    I was one of the people who spoke to Rep Moffitt after his CIBO talk. I asked him why Henderson County, with 5,000 population will have 3 representatives on the MSD board, the same as Asheville with 80,000 population and his reply? Planning for the growth and infrastructure needs of Henderson County and South Buncombe. So what’s fair about this arrangement and who’s benefitting?
    This bill was done solely for big business and big developers and we, the residents and small business owners in Buncombe and Henderson will pay for this growth.

    I hope all the people who voted for these three representatives will remember when their water bill goes up after this merger. Can anyone doubt that it will?

  5. ScottJ

    I’m afraid our fate will be similar to Wilmington with the eventual introduction of tiered rates and then we’ll sit back and watch as water bills will double or triple within 3-4 years time. Little will change with maintenance being the primary goal. And then we’ll hear concerns of corruption, discrimination with the rates, inexplicable pay raises for administrators, and new buildings hidden from budgetary items. Once this fails, then we’ll be told the only answer is to privatize.

  6. ScottJ

    Barry- do you really think this Bill is unconstitutional? I wonder how the courts have handled the wording “sanitation” in the past. The City absolutely needs to fight this.

    Full disclosure. I live in the County and will be affected by this. To say I am opposed to the Bill put forward by Moffit, et al, is an understatement. I’m not opposed to some sort of Water Authority like we had in 2004, but this issue needs to be decided here. I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know what it isn’t, and it most certainly is not this Bill from Moffit/Ramsey/McGrady.

  7. bsummers

    “But, they say they are going to save the “ratepayers” millions of dollars a year. What’s up with that?”

    Shannon, that’s sadly untrue. The Arcadis report done for MSD shows that there will be no savings, in fact, costs will go up.

    First, it projects 13 new water system employees will be needed to replace the work currently done by City staff (many of us believe that number is low).

    Add in the $4 million for new buildings to replace the City-provided spaces the water system currently occupies, the projected $2.4 million transition costs, and the fact that MSD pays their employees roughly 13 percent higher for the same work.

    The whole thing will wind up costing water ratepayers at least approx. $600,000 more per year under MSD than under the City

    • ScottJ

      Hey Barry- Forgive the double question about the water bill and constitutionality. Still not used to the MountainXPress moderated approach for posts.

  8. bsummers

    “It’s difficult to take that comment seriously.”

    Not sure what you mean by that, Mr. Cates.

    • bsummers

      OK, it’s been a while, and I guess I’m not getting a response from Mr. Cates. Someone must have pointed out to him that I was simply reading from the MSD report, which lists these costs attributed to a merger:

      “Customer service & maintenance buildings: (FY14) $2,600,000 (FY15) $1,400,000″

    • bsummers

      Scott J

      You’re forgiven, if you forgive me for leaving the weirdest thing for last:

      Sen. Apodaca (R

  9. Meiling Dai

    One of the commenters indicated she still thinks of manufactured homes (formerly called mobile homes) as unattractive, deteriorating and depreciating. I did my research, talking with manufactured home dealers and going to dealerships to see for myself how manufactured homes (not modular homes) are constructed, and to hear dealers’ claims that manufactured homes are equivalent, in some cases stronger, than site-built homes. One dealer showed me a photo of an intact manufactured home surrounded by site-built homes damaged in a hurricane. H769 is progressing through the legislative process. Hopefully, its passage will EDUCATE the public about manufactured homes in the 21st Century.

  10. Meiling Dai

    Regarding manufactured homes, I forgot to mention that banks that lend money to owners of manufactured homes on individual lots typically charge the SAME INTEREST RATE as they would for a site-built home.

    • Dionysis

      Identify a bank that will lend money to purchase one. It doesn’t matter what the interest rate might be if banks do not lend. That is not an issue wit modular. You claimed these homes have to be on permanent foundations. Untrue per statute.

      “The term

  11. Meiling Dai

    (H769)A bill sponsored by state Rep. Nathan Ramsey would strip North Carolina counties of their ability to restrict where MANUFACTURED HOUSING can be located.

    The Buncombe County Republican said he introduced the measure to increase the supply of affordable housing. Current zoning ordinances in Buncombe and some other counties don

  12. bsummers

    OK, back to Nathan.

    I’m curious how anyone out there who knew Hazel Fobes, feels about Nathan invoking her as a likely supporter of the State seizure of Asheville’s water on the House floor last week.

  13. Meiling Dai

    Here are some interesting facts regarding manufactured homes. H224, now law, eliminates Asheville’s ETJ’s and gives zoning jurisdiction in these areas to Buncombe County within 120 days effective April 1, 2013. This means the restriction the city has in place on manufactured homes in ETJ areas will no longer apply; only modular homes and site built homes are currently allowed in these areas. Usually, doublewide manufactured homes are placed on individual lots; manufactured home dealers advise buyers to install a “permanent foundation” for these homes for stability and safety. Singlewide manufactured homes typically go in mobilehome parks. Manufactured homes prices are in the $30,000-$80,000 price range which is more affordable than buying a site built home. Modular homes typically cost $15,000+ more than manufactured homes. Manufactured homes are inspected by HUD; modular homes are inspected by state inspectors – both inspections occur in the factory. Manufactured homes are as strong as site built homes, if not stronger. Assuming H769 becomes law, it will free up more land in Buncombe County and statewide for manufactured homes, as it will remove existing zoning restrictions to relieve the lack of affordable housing in North Carolina.

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