The following is a transcript of Representative Chuck McGrady’s remarks on the Floor of the North Carolina House of Representatives on Thursday, April 11, 2013 in support of House Bill 488:
Effective lawyers, when faced with bad facts or bad law, reframe the debate — and that’s really what has happened here — particularly from some of the opponents within the City of Asheville.
To read your emails or the resolutions passed by various municipalities around the state, you’d believe probably that the legislation is only about the City of Asheville; that this legislation, when passed, every municipality in the state needs to fear that public utilities run by those local government will be seized, that the equities are with Asheville and that it has acted in good faith and is being treated unfairly. That’s poppycock. I arise to dispel those mis-impressions.
First, this legislation isn’t about Asheville: it’s about the creation of a regional water and sewer authority — just as the legislature created a municipal sewer authority for the greater Asheville area to address failing sewer systems that had turned the French Broad River into an open sewer.
The legislature is creating a new entity known as a “regional water and sewer authority” to address some issues faced in the greater Asheville area that could be faced in other parts of the state.
To read the papers, you might think that only Asheville and Buncombe County were interested in this legislation. But there is another party, Henderson County, that I represent. Henderson County’s sewer assets are being combined into the regional authority too.
Rather than going off and building its own sewer plant so that it can be in control, Henderson’s County sewer assets are combined with the sewer assets in Buncombe County along with the water system managed by the City of Asheville.
The idea of having a combined regional water and sewer authority has been a dream for decades. In the mid-1990s, Henderson County gave up its water rights to the City of Asheville in exchange for 1) an agreement that Asheville would provide water to Henderson County upon demand at the same prices as it provided water to its residents, 2) for representation on the board of the then-existing water authority and, 3) an expectation that it would be able to join a regional sewer authority.
In fact, Asheville transferred property it owned in Buncombe County to Henderson County for a new sewer plant. Well, unlike the authority formed with this legislation, the water authority back then was one created by contract. And contracts can be broken or terminated. This contract was both broken and terminated. Henderson County had to threaten to sue to get water resources provided in the northern part of the county. It had to actually sue to get Asheville to transfer the property and honor its commitment to transfer the property that was expected to be the site of the new sewer.
And then, Asheville terminated the agreement — after ten years leaving Henderson County with no voice in water and sewer issues in the region but having lost its water rights.
In fact, under the state’s Watershed Protection Rules, development is restricted in Henderson County to provide water primarily for Asheville and Buncombe County. So, this isn’t just about Asheville.
Second, you need to understand that other municipalities need not be concerned about some sort of precedent being created. This isn’t about some precursor to forced mergers across the state.
There are really unique facts here and I — like Representative Ramsey — have been working on water and sewer in the area for over twenty years. The water system has generated two court of appeals decisions, and you ought to read the last one; it sets out the facts in great detail.
The water system managed by the City of Asheville is not efficient and it leaks over thirty percent of its water. Now, there are some reasons for that, being in the mountains and all, but still — it’s the largest system in the state leaking anything like that amount of water.
And finally, I’ll tell you that Asheville has a history of using water as a weapon against its neighbors and that has precipitated several interventions by the legislature, most recently, about eight or nine years ago.
The water system isn’t Asheville’s water system; it came about by consolidation of a lot of other systems.
Finally, I hope you don’t believe all you hear about the good things Asheville has done with the water system and with its neighbors; the equities are not with Asheville. In fact, the city has been a bad neighbor. Let’s look at the facts.
Asheville has said that it is being treated unfairly, that its assets are being seized without compensation. But just go back to recent history: two years ago Representative Moffitt filed legislation to create a regional water and sewer authority, but the legislature chose to study the issue and a year later, after hearings, the legislative committee recommended the creation of a regional water and sewer authority.
Bowing to the request of the City of Asheville, that committee didn’t recommend any specific legislation. Rather, it told the local governments to work things out.
What did Asheville do? City leaders sought to reframe the issue by raising the specter of privatization of the water system. It put a referendum on the ballot focused on privatization and tried to make a political issue of it. When the referendum passed — even though it didn’t have any relevance to the issue at hand — it pursued a political strategy that failed.
When Representative Moffitt won re-election by a greater majority than before, and another advocate of regional water and sewer, Nathan Ramsey, was also elected, even then, MSD (which had been studying merging the systems) offered tens of millions to acquire Asheville’s interest in the water system, did Asheville respond or make a counter-offer? No. Asheville’s response was to try to make the issue a state-wide issue, having scared its citizens into thinking that its water system was being seized, it now was trying to scare cities and town across the state into believing that this was some sort of dangerous precedent.
More recently, the city blamed its potential financial problems on the legislation. Per usual, the city is using scare tactics to try to get its way.
At various points, Asheville made other arguments.
It said the merger was bad for the environment. Well, that argument went away because we actually have more land use in the bill than is currently in ordinances related to water and sewer in the greater Asheville area.
It said that Henderson County’s powerful legislative delegation was seeking to ensure that Henderson County had inordinate power over water and sewer. Even today, I would tell you that they’re just not telling the whole truth. This isn’t about privatization.
It’s about protecting a regional resource and giving control to local government that will represent all of the people in the Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson County area. It’s about resolving a festering regional dispute. And that’s why I urge you to support the legislation.