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Also: More WNC bills and this week at the NCGA

UPDATED: This story was updated to reflect new legislative calendar information on when these bills will be discussed.

Asheville legislation is again in the spotlight, but this time the only thing that’s laid bare is the clout of the N.C. General Assembly over local government.

A slew of Asheville-related legislation was introduced last week, setting the stage for a session that could yield major changes in the city’s structure and its interaction with surrounding communities.

While much of the interest this session has been focused on anticipated legislation mandating the merger of the city’s water and sewer system into a separate, multi-county entity, the recently proposed legislation would rein in the city’s ability to influence what happens outside its municipal borders. The House Government Committee will take up the measures on Thursday at 10 a.m. in Room 643 of the Legislative Office Building.

Rep. Nathan Ramsey

Asheville-area GOP Reps. Nathan Ramsey and Tim Moffitt introduced legislation late last week that, as currently written, would end the city’s authority over its extraterritorial jurisdiction, known as the ETJ, on April 1. Under the bill, the city’s ETJ would remain under Asheville’s rules for an additional 60 days or until Buncombe County adopts county regulations for the area.

In another section of the bill, the city is also prevented from completing or initiating any annexation through 2025.

Ramsey and Moffitt also teamed up with Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Hendersonville) to introduced legislation repealing 2009 amendments to the Sullivan Act that allowed Asheville to use up to 5 percent of its utility revenues for street and sidewalk improvements during waterline projects.

Rep. Tim Moffitt

Those amendments build on Sullivan Act amendments passed in 2005 that are key to the revenue structure of the city’s water and sewer system and would likely require modification should the system be merged.

In an interview Monday, Ramsey said he expects the merger legislation to join the recently introduced bills within a month. He said while he’s not sure what legislation will eventually pass, the two main goals are to improve the interaction of local governments and to make sure Asheville ends the session in the same or better financial position.

“What our community needs to do is work more collaboratively,” Ramsey said. “This is a means to do that.”

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Rep. Chuck McGrady

Given the direction of the General Assembly, he said he did not think the annexation and ETJ legislation would prove controversial.

“I think most of the people living in those areas would prefer to be regulated by someone they can vote for,” he said.

Ramsey, who served eight years as chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, said he’s convinced the county will be able to step in and develop new regulations for the current ETJ.

“The county is fairly confident they can do that,” he said.

Asheville Vice-Mayor Esther Manheimer said the legislation was not unexpected. Moffitt, she said, had told council members in January that ETJ legislation would be coming.

“At least knowing that was going to happen, the council was able to initiate talks with the county for an orderly transition,” Manheimer said.

Manheimer said when the ETJ was set up, the county did not have zoning. Since it has those regulations now, she acknowledged that the county has a “pretty good argument” for taking back regulation of the ETJ areas.

Manheimer said two key concerns going forward are the need for the city to be able to annex areas that request it and to make sure it doesn’t take a financial hit should there be a utility merger.

Ramsey said he would work to alter the annexation portion of the new bill to allow the city to do voluntary annexations.

He said once the merger bill is introduced, he expects to see it change as well.

“The delegation is open to having concerns raised and making modifications,” he said.

Both Ramsey and Manheimer said the key to making the plan fair will be finding a way to replace the roughly $1.5 million in capital improvement money from the transfers and the nearly $1.8 million from the city’s Water Enterprise Fund spent on running the water department. The legislation introduced last week would end the city’s right to transfer utility funds into capital improvements once the bill becomes law.

“Obviously, that’s a painful change,” Manheimer said. “It is money built into the capital plan.”

Finding a way to make that work without the city taking a budget hit has been a challenge, Ramsey said. “What’s the mechanism to hold them harmless?”

Ramsey said it’s not likely Asheville will be alone in having its jurisdiction changed via an act of the legislature. He expects several local ETJ and annexation bills to be introduced. And more sweeping legislation is in the works as well.

Last week, Moffitt, who chairs the House Regulatory Reform Committee, signed on as a primary sponsor of a bill that aims to end the use of ETJ statewide. The Justice for Rural Citizens Act would end all jurisdiction corporate limits for every “city, town, village or other political subdivision” in the state on Jan. 1, 2014.

Looking ahead

This week in Raleigh appropriation hearings continue while Gov. Pat McCrory prepares to wrap up work on his first budget. McCrory said at a Council of State meeting last week he intends to have a budget ready within two weeks. The governor also ordered another round of belt-tightening for this fiscal year, which ends on June 30, citing a shortfall in the state’s Medicaid program. A budget memo sent out Friday ordered limits on department spending and a suspension of raises through the end of the fiscal year.

Hearings on Voter ID legislation also start this week with a public hearing before the House Committee on Elections scheduled for 4 p.m. today (Tuesday). House Speaker Thom Tillis announced last week that he expects a bill to be introduced by the end of March or early April.

This morning (Tuesday), the Senate Judiciary I Committee will take up a bill introduced by Sen. Tom Apodaca (R-Hendersonville) and Sen. Thom Goolsby (R-Wilmington) that puts teeth in the state’s public records laws.

Senate Bill 125 would make denial of access to public records a Class 3 misdemeanor punishable by fines and 20 days in jail. The bill, which will be heard during Sunshine Week, is opposed by the North Carolina League of Municipalities. State law currently has no criminal penalties for violations of its public records laws.

WNC legislation

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The House Public Utilities and Energy Committee holds a hearing Wednesday on legislation introduced by three WNC legislators — Reps. Michelle Presnell (R-Burnsville), Moffitt and Mike Hager (R-Rutherfordton) — to remove an annual reporting requirement for electric cooperatives.

The Senate Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Committee will review a bill introduced by Sen. Jim Davis (R-Franklin) that would prohibit state agencies and local governments from adopting regulations on greenhouse gasses or rules that “limits human activity for the purpose of reducing greenhouse gasses” that are more stringent than federal rules.

Additional bills introduced by members of the Western North Carolina delegation include:

  • legislation by Davis to modify the duties of the State Advisory Council on Indian Education, specifying a look at expulsion rates, dropouts and graduation rates;
  • a bill requiring preferences for local bidders on government contracts sponsored by Sen. Dan Soucek (R-Boone);
  • legislation introduced by Rep. Chris Whitmire (R-Rosman) preventing those without “lawful immigration status” from enrolling in the the state’s community colleges or the UNC system;
  • a resolution introduced by Rep. Jonathan Jordan (R-Jefferson) honoring Doc Watson; and
  • a bill sponsored by Moffitt and Jordan limiting city and county zoning controls on design and aesthetics for one- and two-family dwellings.

Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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