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A bill setting the stage for the transfer of ownership and operation of the Asheville water system from the city to a new water and sewer district board, passed a key vote in the state House Thursday afternoon.
In a 68-42 vote on the second reading, the House approved H488, the Regionalization of Public Utilities, sponsored by Asheville-area Reps. Tim Moffitt and Nathan Ramsey and Hendersonville Rep. Chuck McGrady. But it held off making a final vote on the measure to allow additional time for review of the bill with an amendment by Rep. Skip Stam, of Apex, the second-highest ranking member of the body.
Stam’s amendment, which passed the House 104-5, followed concerns raised earlier this week in the House Finance Committee about the statewide implications of the bill. Though tailored for the merger of the Asheville system with Buncombe County and northern Henderson County, the bill applies statewide, setting up a mechanism to convert certain municipal systems into separate regional water and sewer system authorities.
Stam and others worried that the rules might apply to counties like Wake and Durham that may not want the change and sought language that further tightens how the new rules would apply.
Moffitt said he met with Stam after the Finance Committee meeting to begin working on an amendment. Prior to the the House vote on Thursday, Moffitt also met with members from Wake County and other concerned local delegations to offer assurances that the bill would not have unintended consequences in their areas.
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During floor debate, Ramsey told House members that the bill would solve long-term water issues between Asheville and its neighbors.
“This is not a partisan issue back home,” he said. “This is an effort to bring our community together.”
McGrady took exception with opponents of the bill who claimed Asheville was being treated unfairly.
“That’s poppycock,” he said.
City leaders, he said, were trying to reframe the debate.
“Asheville has a history of using water as a weapon against its neighbors,” McGrady said.
Asheville Democrat Rep. Susan Fisher said she was angry over the distortions being used by her Republican colleagues.
“They have what appear to be good strong points, but there is more to the story,” she said.
The board of the new district, she said, would not be as accountable as an elected body and its make up gives disproportional representation to Henderson County residents.
Representatives on the board of the new district would be appointed by county commissioners from each county it serves along with representatives appointed by the municipal governments in the counties.
Henderson County has .2 percent of the total water accounts, Fisher said.
“This bill would give Henderson County 20 percent of the board seats, the same number of board seats as it would give Asheville that has 56 percent of the water accounts,” she said.
During the week, city officials continued to lobby against the bill.
At the Finance Committee meeting, City Manager Gary Jackson defended the city’s operation of the system and deemed the merger “high risk/low return.” He said the transition costs would add up to no financial benefit from the new system in its first nine years.
“House Bill 488 sets a bad precedent,” he said.
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Although — in both the House floor debate and the committee hearings — Moffitt said the bill was intended to allow any system in the state that wanted to merge to do so in an orderly way, legislators took aim at the the local nature of the statewide legislation.
Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Raleigh, said it was “never any kind of fun” watching a fight within a delegation, but having it spill over into other parts of the state was worse.
“Forget about the Asheville-Buncombe County dispute,” she said. “I’ve got to vote against this because it’s bad to make the rest of the state have to be pulled into your mess. This is not the right way to make public policy.”
The bill remains on the House calendar and could see a final vote on Monday after which it would move to the Senate.