Raleigh's water rustlers, or, isn't It a Shane?

It has come to my attention that Buncombe County’s range war has gone largely unnoticed outside the region. Well, better saddle up, partners. Your town is next. For those who don’t have time for deep reading, here’s the story in a nutshell. It's a complicated story I don't fully grasp myself, so excuse the editorializing and lack of complete detail, but you need to know:

Raleigh is acting like rich, cattle barons.
They want our water rights.
They offer pennies on the dollar.
If we refuse, their henchmen take it by force.

Now you can fill in the details from memory and probably hum the film score. Tea Party Tim Moffitt (R, Buncombe, ALEC) and another henchman – Chuck McGrady (R, Henderson) – have set out to seize Asheville’s water system by legislative fiat. They intend to transfer the city's water supply against the townspeople’s will to a new Regional Water Authority. This is unprecedented. McGrady now is working up a state bill to seize the city’s assets. But with the GOP firmly in controlin Raleigh, they are moving ahead and there seems to be nothing we can do to stop them.

Moffitt, the Chair of the House Select Committee on Public-Private Partnerships, swears this seizure is not a prelude to privatizing the water supply.

In a non-binding referendum this November, Asheville's citizens voted 86 percent against this deal. 86 percent. The same day in August when the city council voted unanimously to put the question to voters, Moffitt reacted by citing a UNC School of Government report on his blog:

“Thus, if the General Assembly wants to create a city, county, or other local governmental unit, it is free to do so. If it wishes to abolish a local government, or to merge it with another, or to impose particular obligations on it, it has almost unlimited power to do as it chooses. In sum, North Carolina is not a ‘home rule’ state, as that term is commonly understood. Its local governments exist by legislative benevolence, not by constitutional mandate.”

Rob Schofield of Progressive Pulse observed,

You got that, Asheville? Better not try to stand too forcefully in the lawmaker’s way or next year there might just be a bill in the General Assembly to dissolve the cesspool of sin altogether.

Or in a fit of pique, Moffitt could just impose city council elections by district and force errant city council Democrats to run against each other. He already telegraphed that move. In 2011, by legislative fiat he split the county commission races into districts to make it easier for Republicans to win in a county that votes 60 percent Democrat.

The history of the city water system is long and convoluted (see Sullivan Acts – no relation), but the state legislature is insisting that the city of Asheville hand over the water supply system that it built and has owned since the 1930s – watersheds, reservoirs, water treatment, pipes, pumps, etc. The new regional Water and Sewer Authority will own the water system outright. They will control the watershed and reservoirs for 99 years with no plan for compensating the city. This will leave a nearly $4 million dollar hole in the city budget that will affect residents and businesses throughout the county.

It hasn't hurt that the city's own impact study (just out) showed the forced merger producing a net cost to city residents. And if improved operating efficiency is the sometime rationale Moffitt and McGrady give for the merger, that's gone up in smoke. The study found that consolidating the smaller MSD under the larger city government would produce a better economy of scale than what Raleigh plans to impose in January -- just the opposite. More on that at Scrutiny Hooligans.

On the other hand, the state’s position is, if the city reaches some sort of merger agreement with the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) before the end of the year, the townspeople might get a few dollars in compensation from MSD. If we fight back, maybe nothing. If there’s no agreement by the end of the year, the state will take the water system anyway. Is your town next?

There's a whole city/county animus the GOP is exploiting to sell this deal, but that ultimately is just pretext for seizing the water system. Plus, Henderson County wants access to Asheville's sewer system. Their state representative (McGrady) is writing the seizure bill with no input from Buncombe. Moffitt first floated this regional merger over a year ago, threatening to just seize the system legislatively. A firestorm ensued. So he formed a Legislative Research Committee to study the matter instead. Their conclusion? Seize the system. And voila! Asheville never really owned its water system anyway, they found. The “ratepayers” own it. So the state owes the city no compensation for taking it.

The takeover is being treated as a fait accompli in the local press. Raleigh is working double hard to see to it that MSD and the city come to some sort of merger agreement. That gives Raleigh cover for saying that the merger was not forced on them. Plus, if city and MSD come to some sort of financial settlement, no matter how onerous, it helps shield Raleigh from a city lawsuit for compensation for the seized asset. They do not want to have to defend in court the LRC conclusion that the ratepayers own the system. (Because then I'd own Duke Power and BellSouth.)

Saturday night, Governor-elect Pat McCrory visited Asheville for an annual Republican fundraiser dinner at the Grove Park Inn. He the other guests got a faceful of Defend Our Water protesters on his drive in. If he, like many of you, knew nothing of the proposed seizure before, he knows about it now. And now, so do you. Volumes more at Save Asheville's Water.

The still-unanswered question is, who is the Cattle Baron?