Some bills weaken cities

April 9, 2013 

One wants to stand up, there in that area between the House and Senate chambers on the second floor of the Legislative Building, and shout, “Guys, we’re all on the same side!” What in the world are legislators thinking with several bills that would weaken cities, including some costing them sizable sums of money?

Consider some measures now in the hopper in the legislature: One would take control of the world’s sixth-busiest airport, Charlotte Douglas International, from the city and put it in the hands of an independent, regional authority. Apparently, now that former Queen City Mayor Pat McCrory is now Gov. McCrory, some Charlotte-area Republicans aren’t as happy with the city’s leadership. Sen. Bob Rucho of nearby Matthews says city officials want control “for their personal agenda rather than what is best for the economic future of the airport, the city and the region.”

It’s hard to know what that’s about, but it sounds like somebody from the city made the senator mad and it’s payback time.

And, of course, there’s the move from Republicans to tear up the City of Raleigh’s lease for the Dorothea Dix property for use as a park. Legislators from outside the region were mad because former Gov. Beverly Perdue, a Democrat, made the deal in the last days of her administration. So does anybody think this might be about, say, partisanship?

Many others

Other bills would take away Asheville’s control of its water system and stop the city from using water utility revenues for street repairs that are needed because of installing underground water lines. Gee, is it any coincidence that Sen. Martin Nesbitt, Democratic leader in the upper chamber, is from ... Asheville?

And there are others: easier rules on homebuilders that would limit cities’ ability to oversee and control development; the end to franchise and business privilege license taxes at a huge cost to cities.

It appears that some suburban legislators think the cities have gotten too big for their britches, which is a mighty narrow-minded and curious way to look at the urban growth that’s happened along the state’s east-west Interstate highways in the last 20 years. Much of the population growth in North Carolina has been, quite naturally, around the cities.

And without that, the suburbs would be smaller or nonexistent.

Why Speaker Thom Tillis, who ought to know better, would buy into the idea that diminishing the cities’ assets will somehow be “putting more power in the hands of the individual property owner” is mystifying. If the cities are strong, the suburbs are stronger. The financial success of cities builds the areas around them. It drives road-building and mass transit. It means more services such as hospitals for everyone within a reasonable radius of the city.

A historic divide

There always have been tensions between urban and rural lawmakers. Because the more rural areas tended to send people to the General Assembly for many terms, those legislators became powerful with seniority and knowledge. In fact, there were times when legislators from the cities were the least powerful on Jones Street.

Even now, there’s some of that, with Tillis from a Charlotte suburb, Cornelius, and Sen. Phil Berger, president pro tem of the Senate and the Republican leader, from Eden. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican senator, says he senses a feeling “that cities have too much power and want to control everything.”

Considering the leadership in the House and Senate, it’s hard to see how cities could in fact control everything even if they wanted to do so. But to declare war on cities, while it might provide convenient political targets, just isn’t smart for the state. Business recruitment, universities, medical services and transportation hubs all tend to be linked to cities.

Ellis Hankins, long-time head of the state League of Municipalities, rightly says diminishing cities will be bad for the state in the long term. “We don’t need to take bricks out of the foundation,” he said.

Because, yes, we’re all on the same side.

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