Opposition to seizure of Asheville’s water system gains statewide momentum

The local fight over the legislative push to forcibly transfer the city of Asheville’s water system to the Metropolitan Sewerage District has helped spur a larger statewide reaction. Last week, the League of Municipalities adopted the defense of local utilities as one of its top priorities, and 40 cities and towns across North Carolina have passed resolutions against state government taking municipal infrastructure.

At their annual meeting, representatives of the state’s towns and cities picked their legislative goals for the coming year. “Oppose legislation that weakens or removes local control over public utility systems, specifically including municipal water and/or sewer systems” received the most votes. The nonpartisan group represents 522 local governments across the state.

“I think our membership wanted to let it be known that there is a significant amount of concern among municipal officials across the state about the operation of municipally-owned utility systems,” Ellis Hankins, the league’s executive director, tells Xpress. “Operating water, sewer, in some cases even natural gas and broadband, are very important municipal systems.”

The city’s situation struck a chord, says Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer, who represented Asheville at the meeting.

“We heard a lot of people saying ‘we’re pretty worried this could happen to us,’” Manheimer tells Xpress. At a community meeting Jan. 29, city officials said they believe legislation to force a transfer will come in the near future.

Hankins notes that Asheville’s case wasn’t alone, but played a role in the league’s reaction. He added that the league will wait until it sees what specific legislation emerges from Raleigh before deciding whether they regard it as legislative overreach.

“I know that most members of the general assembly would proceed very cautiously down any path to interfere with the financial, ownership and operational arrangements that have been in place for many years and work very well in many communities.”

Over the past few months, the league has helped distribute a resolution to municipalities around the state opposing legislation that would forcibly take a water or sewer system. So far, 40 have passed the measure. Black Mountain’s Board of Aldermen, one of the most recent local governments to join the push, adopted the resolution in a special meeting last Friday.

“We expect more cities may adopt the resolution, but this [situation] is pretty tricky,” Manheimer says.

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