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The Future of Public Water

In 2013--about the same time that the State of Michigan enacted a law enabling 'emergency managers' to take over financially-distressed municipal governments like Flint--the North Carolina General Assembly passed a bill make it easier to force the regionalization the state's public utilities. The law, which was ostensibly written to improve the efficiency of municipal services, appeared to specifically target the city of Asheville's water system, which was to be annexed to the Buncombe County regional water authority. The city successfully challenged the "transfer law's" constitutionality in trial court, but lost on appeal. Oral arguments before the state Supreme Court began this week. Many see the transfer law as a first step toward privatizing a major chunk of Asheville's revenue-generating urban infrastructure.

Cities have always been battlegrounds when it comes to the control of public services. Today, the forces arrayed against local, community control is higher than ever. Economically stressed communities like Flint are facing unprecedented pressure to give up local control, or risk losing basic services altogether. But it isn't just the Flints of the world facing these pressures. Uber's recent battle with the city of Austin over fingerprinting its drivers was actually an attempt strong-arm the city into exempting ride sharing companies from municipal regulation. AT&T just successfully killed municipal broadband expansion in Tennessee. Charter schools chip away at the public education model that serves most American children.

But water is different. If Flint has taught us anything, it's that water service should not be run like a business. For over 100 years, local public utilities have supplied American cities with clean, safe, and affordable water. And while many of these municipal systems do require expensive updates, privatization is not the mechanism for making those necessary investments.

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