A state-mandated transfer of the Asheville water system will be tested in court. At a special May 7 meeting, Asheville City Council members voted unanimously to sue the state of North Carolina over House Bill 488, legislation that gives control of the system to the Metropolitan Sewerage District of Buncombe County.
The stage is set: The bill passed both chambers of the North Carolina General Assembly, and on May 9, Gov. Pat McCrory chose to neither veto or sign it, which means it becomes law. The governor cited “complicated intergovernmental issues” that the courts must resolve.
Asheville has “very little time to address the issues [HB 488] raises,” City Attorney Bob Oast told Council members on May 7. Council’s resolution authorizes him to file the lawsuit in Wake County Superior Court, challenging HB 488’s validity and seeking to have it overturned. Oast cited “a number of legal, constitutional, and practical issues” with the bill and mentioned Asbury v. Albermarle, a 1913 case that established some limits on the state's power over municipal property.
Council members have also noted their concern that HB 488 will harm the Asheville’s ability to borrow money for future projects: It could potentially lower the city’s bond rating by putting the ownership of municipal assets in question. “The [legislative] move "creates unpredictability," said Mayor Terry Bellamy.
HB 488 “doesn't just affect Asheville," state Rep. Susan Fisher said at a joint May 10 press conference with city officials. "All we've seen, over and over again, is [legislators] taking away city's power."
Earlier in the week, Bellamy said, “I don’t believe we should have to sue the state over this, because we’ve been improving our system. … Since I’ve been mayor, what have we done wrong with the system?”
She also told reporters, “There is no way we can transfer an almost $1 billion asset by May 15 to a new authority. Who’s the director? Whom do we sign it over to?”
Bellamy said she’s convinced that other municipalities will file suit against HB 488. “We will not be standing alone.”
“This course of action is the only rational response to an irresponsible effort,” Council member Gordon Smith told Xpress. “Just the debt and bond issues will take months and months to sort out, not to mention that the authority that we’re supposed to give the water system to doesn’t exist yet. They’ve crafted a bill that’s impossible to execute.”
He added his thoughts on why legislators filed the bill, which was sponsored by Reps. Tim Moffitt, Nathan Ramsey and Chuck McGrady: “It’s just a case of vendetta politics.”
At the joint press conference, Sen. Martin Nesbitt said, “We must fight. We must win.”
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or firstname.lastname@example.org.