The local legislative delegation is united no more.
Less than a month after co-sponsoring (with Reps. Wilma Sherrill and Bruce Goforth) two bills that would bar Asheville from charging water users outside the city limits a higher rate, Rep. Susan Fisher has reversed course.
On April 25 — the day before Asheville and Buncombe County’s scheduled mediation session — Fisher wrote an e-mail to Sherrill, Goforth and Sen. Martin Nesbitt and copied it to City Council members and county commissioners.
“This email is to let you know that recent developments have affected my point of view about the pending legislation regarding water issues,” Fisher wrote. “With the benefit of direct input from my constituents and further research and study, I now have serious reservations about this legislation.
“In order to allow the mediation to proceed fairly without undue outside interference, I will not weigh in at this time about the specifics. I just want you to know that my support for the legislation is in doubt, so this would not come as a surprise to you at a later date, if the mediation fails to resolve the issues.”
Sullivan II would remove all doubt about the applicability of the original 1933 Sullivan Act by banning rate differentials for all customers “currently or hereafter connected to the water lines currently maintained by the Asheville/Buncombe Water Authority.” And Sullivan III would require the city to supply water to all outside customers “so long as there is excess capacity.”
Members of the local legislative delegation have maintained that the bills do not favor one government over the other, saying they were aimed at preserving the “status quo” in case the city and county failed to reach an agreement by June 30. Martin Nesbitt, for instance, has pointed out that Sullivan II specifies that the county would be responsible for maintaining “in proper repair” certain water lines that would revert to the county if the Water Agreement were dissolved.
At an April 29 press conference, however, Council member Brownie Newman charged that the bills blatantly favor the county by barring the city from charging higher rates to outside residents while doing nothing to preserve the tax-equity benefits the city currently enjoys. (Under the expiring agreement, the county pays for the administration and maintenance of various city-owned recreational facilities and reimburses the city close to $2 million a year for Sheriff’s Department “patrol and investigation” expenses that city residents help pay for but don’t use.)
But Newman went further still, asserting that County Attorney Joe Connolly had actually written the two bills. Connolly later confirmed that “the county’s attorneys had substantial involvement in drafting the language of the bills.”
The city maintains that the bills give the county less incentive to negotiate in good faith — thereby increasing the likelihood that the dispute will wind up in court. And speaking to that point, Fisher (whose district includes parts of Asheville as well as north and west Buncombe County) told Xpress that by withdrawing her support, she hoped to “level the playing field.” Her decision drew steady praise from Asheville City Council members.
Certainly, if Fisher hadn’t jumped ship, the odds of the legislation passing would have been overwhelming. Local bills that have the full support of the affected area’s delegation are almost always adopted, says Andrew Romanet, chief counsel for the North Carolina League of Municipalities. The few exceptions are generally those opposed by highly organized special interests (such as builders) that mount major lobbying campaigns, he notes.
But with Sherrill and Goforth still supporting the legislation, and Nesbitt and Sen. Tom Apodaca poised to introduce similar legislation in the Senate, it’s unclear whether Fisher’s defection will have much impact.
On April 27, the morning after the marathon mediation session, Fisher, Newman and Council member Holly Jones addressed Local Government II, the House’s committee on local bills, arguing against the legislation.
“There are two sides to every story,” Fisher told the committee (according to a draft of her comments that she e-mailed to Xpress). “I have learned enough about the water dispute to know that I would need much more information and direct input from my constituents before I could support any local legislation dictating a particular outcome.”
Nonetheless, the committee approved both bills on a voice vote, with only two or three nays heard. The bills now await consideration by the full House.