RALEIGH — Even in a state that has grown increasingly urban, North Carolina cities are on the defensive, fighting to keep prized assets and local control against a legislature that appears intent on taking them.
Three cities Charlotte, Asheville and Raleigh face the loss of signature assets. Small towns, like bigger cities, fear significant revenue drains.
Its not just municipalities that have felt the sting. Senate bills would redraw school board districts in Wake and Guilford counties and change the way members in each are elected.
It has been an amazing array of bills that add up to more restrictions on cities and on urban counties to govern themselves, says Ferrel Guillory, a political analyst at UNC Chapel Hill.
Like the General Assembly itself, the urban struggles reflect North Carolinas demographic and political changes.
Republicans control the legislature with an alliance of rural and suburban lawmakers. Some of the most influential lawmakers now hail from suburbs, such as Apex, Cornelius and Matthews.
Democrats, once as strong in rural counties as in metropolitan areas, now find their strength confined largely to urban cores.
Despite having a governor in Republican Pat McCrory who was the longtime mayor of the states largest city, some GOP members are openly wary of cities.
There is a definite feeling that cities have too much power and want to control everything, says Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican who chairs the influential Rules Committee. Cities are getting too big and too powerful. We have to look after counties.
The tensions have been marked by three battles:
• Lawmakers would transfer control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport the worlds sixth busiest based on takeoffs and landings from the city to an independent, regional authority.
Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthew Republican, says city officials want control for their personal agenda rather than what is best for the economic future of airport, the city and the region.
• The Senate negated a lease of the former Dorothea Dix hospital property to the city of Raleigh, which plans a park. The bill would require the state to get fair market value. The lease had been approved in December under former Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue.
The measure, now in the House, sparked tense debate. At a hearing, Capitol Broadcasting president and CEO Jim Goodmon said nobody would trust doing business with the state if it breaks the lease.
• A long-anticipated bill filed last week would put Ashevilles water system under control of a Metropolitan Sewerage District, without compensating the city.
Dozens of other bills would affect cities.
House Bill 150, for example, would limit their ability to make homebuilders adhere to design standards. House Bill 79 calls for a constitutional amendment eliminating extraterritorial jurisdiction, a tool that helps cities control development on their borders.
Tax reform bills would end revenue sources such as the franchise and business privilege license taxes. That would cost cities $320 million, according to the N.C. League of Municipalities, though bill supporters say it would be balanced by broadening the sales tax base.
House Bill 252 would prevent Asheville from using part of its water utility revenues for street repairs that result from installing underground water lines.
All these follow last years major changes in North Carolinas annexation laws that made it harder for cities to grow through annexation.
The legislature has created a threatening environment for cities, forcing cities to legitimize and justify their role in North Carolina and its economy, says Esther Manheimer, vice mayor of Asheville and a former legislative attorney.
Past legislatures have understood the role of cities in the overall health of the state, and that was never questioned.
Genuine tension in GOP
In the legislative auditorium last week, public officials from around the state gathered for Town Hall Day, organized by the N.C. League of Municipalities. After listening to Republican Rep. Ruth Samuelson of Charlotte outline issues, councilman Tony Stimatz of Elizabeth City rose.
The impression is (legislators) dont want to let us do our jobs, he said. We really dont want them telling us how to run our city.
Youre identifying a genuine tension in our philosophy, Samuelson replied. On one hand we believe in local government. On the other hand we might be more sensitive to over-reach(ing) at the local level.
House Speaker Thom Tillis says the tensions with cities reflect philosophical differences.
A part of the conflict is a different world view of the role of government, he says. Were putting more power in the hands of the individual property owner.
In the Dix dispute, Republicans say, they have a responsibility to state taxpayers to get more money for the property than it would get under the current lease. In the cases involving the Charlotte airport and Asheville water system, they say theyre trying to make the best decisions for the most people.
We are changing the management of publicly owned assets from people who use them for the benefit of a few to protect the rights of the many, says Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican and a main sponsor of the airport bill.
Brawley says he fears continued city management could lead to the loss of the airports status as a US Airways hub. A former town commissioner, he says he has seen little willingness by cities in general to negotiate.
They dont want to have conversations, he says. They want to have the right to do whatever they want. Arrogant is a word I would use.
Changing balance of power
Last December a bipartisan, high-profile group including two former governors, business executives and two people who went on to join Gov. Pat McCrorys cabinet formed an organization called The North Carolina Communities and Business Alliance.
Its mission: to promote economic growth and development in North Carolinas cities and towns.
Chairman Keith Crisco, Perdues former commerce secretary, says the group is watching bills like those affecting Charlotte, Asheville and Raleigh.
If this is the beginning of a long-term trend to make cities weaker financially and less attractive to citizens and business, thats a bad thing, he says.
Much of North Carolinas growth over the last decade has come along the I-85/I-40 corridor, drawn by growing urban areas from the Research Triangle to Charlotte.
UNCs Guillory says signing the Republican measures into law would represent a dramatic shift in the balance of governing power in the state.
It would amount to a significant state intervention in the affairs of counties and cities, he says.
Ellis Hankins, the League of Municipalities executive director, calls cities engines of economic development that attract growth and jobs.
We need to preserve the solid foundation that we have in this state, he says. We dont need to take bricks out of the foundation.