Old agenda, new partners

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 23, 2013

De-annexation of the Rowan County Airport has been on Jim Sides’ agenda for years. But the speed with which local legislators have embraced the county commission chairman’s desire — and the hostility toward cities that is surfacing in the General Assembly — are new and worrisome.
Salisbury, which once owned the Rowan airport, annexed part of the property in 2005. Now, county commissioners want to undo that action, and local legislators sound eager to file a bill to that effect, even those whose district includes Salisbury voters.
Rowan County owns the airport; no one argues with that. This dispute is about whether the airport should remain in the city limits, which subjects the planes and hangars there to property taxes. There are reasons why this is a bad idea locally, but the impact on the state level is even more critical. If the legislature effectively redraws an eight-year-old boundary to exclude the airport, a dangerous precedent would be set. Lawmakers could proceed to unravel the tax bases of other cities with unsupportive county commissioners and indifferent-at-best legislative delegations. .
In fact, they have. Last year the legislature reversed in-process and completed annexations in nine areas: Lexington, Rocky Mount, Southport, Fayetteville, Asheville, Marvin, Wilmington, Kinston and Goldsboro. The cities are prohibited from annexing those areas for 12 years.
Without regard for the health of their cities, the alliance of commissioners and lawmakers — conservative Republicans emboldened by new majority power — could steadily whittle away at the state’s cities.
Meanwhile, Charlotte and Republican lawmakers are fighting over Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. Last week a state Senate committee OK’d a bill to strip control of the airport from city and turn it over to a new airport authority. The airport is financially independent, but the city has exerted more control in recent years — for instance, getting involved in security after a teenager stowed away in the wheel well of a jet and later died.
The Charlotte tug of war is not unprecedented. The legislature took the Asheville airport away from that city and turned it over to an authority last year. That may have been just the beginning. Now lawmakers want to seize Asheville’s water system and place it under an independent authority put together by the state. Imagine the disastrous impact if the lawmakers decided to apply that concept statewide.
Part of the Raleigh Republicans’ brazenness comes from a redistricting map that minimizes cities’ voting power. Locally, dynamics like distrust and grudges are at work. Considering the driving role that cities play in the state’s economic development, North Carolina may be embarking on a self-defeating path — weakening the economic engines of the cities when the state needs them most.