Cities face more curbs on power

By Scott Mooneyham | Mar 19, 2013

RALEIGH — For a third year in a row, the North Carolina General Assembly is punching city and town government squarely in the mouth.

For two years, most of that beating was aimed at knocking out the teeth that city and town governments had used to involuntarily annex nearby territory into their corporate limits.

More movement on that front could be in the making, with additional legislation filed that would put further restrictions on annexation and eliminate the zoning and planning jurisdictions that extend outside of city limits. There are also bills limiting cities' regulatory authority.

Then there are the efforts to wrest away control of specific assets from specific cities.

The state Senate has already approved legislation that move control of the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport from the Charlotte City Council to a regional authority. Senate leaders also want to void a deal that would allow the city of Raleigh to develop a park on state-owned property where the Dorothea Dix psychiatric hospital and other state offices have stood for decades.

House leaders have been working for a couple of years to take control of Asheville's water system from its city council and handing it to an appointed regional board.

All this movement is possible because cities, in North Carolina, derive their power from the state. They are subdivisions of the state, so state government can pretty much do what it wants to them.

Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican who heads the powerful Senate Rules Committee, recently told WRAL in Raleigh that the efforts reflect the current Republican leadership view that cities have gained too much power, drowning out the voices of residents outside city and town limits.

Democratic legislators see more sinister motives. Some view the trend as an attempt to grab control from local bodies now overseen by Democratic majorities and hand them over to Republicans.

There is hardly anything sinister, though, in playing to your political base.

That is mostly what is happening here.

Conservative Republicans, in their third year of control of the General Assembly, are naturally more aligned with rural voters, who are generally more conservative and more distrustful of those city folk down the road.

That distrust is especially palpable when it comes to the officials who lead those towns and cities.

Many of those rural voters have not been happy with expanding cities and the prospect of being taken into corporate limits and paying city taxes, even if some benefit from living along the edges of cities and the economic opportunities which they draw.

But understanding that dynamic and that Republican lawmakers are answering the calls of their political base does not mean that legislation punishing cities is good public policy.

Rural residents may not like it, but cities have become drivers of the state economy.

Restricting their ability to grow, limiting their authority to oversee their own infrastructure and curbing their regulatory powers puts economic growth at risk over the long haul.