At a worksession this afternoon, July 30, Asheville City Council directed staff to craft a referendum for November's ballot asking voters to weigh in on a possible transfer of the Asheville water system to the Metropolitan Sewerage District. The city is also communicating with MSD, studying the financial impacts of a merger and trying to arrange a meeting with local legislators.
"We have an opportunity to ask our voters whether or not they approve of a change in our water system," Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer said. "This is an excellent opportunity for us to accurately gauge the sentiment of the citizenry of Asheville."
State law allows a city to submit the question of the "sale, lease or discontinuance" of a water system to its voters, though it doesn't specify that the referendum must be binding. On Aug. 14, Council will vote to place the referendum on the November ballot.
Earlier this year, a state legislative study commission chaired by Rep. Tim Moffitt recommended that the city's system be transferred to MSD. Council denounced the process by which the recommendation was reached and has refuted the recommendation. The state legislature recently passed a bill allowing MSD to operate a water system, and Council asked Gov. Bev Perdue to veto it. But she declined to either veto or sign the bill, setting the stage for it to become law despite Council asking for a veto. The study commission noted it would not press further legislation if the city and MSD were engaged in good-faith negotiations about the transfer.
Council member Gordon Smith said, "There seems to be an artificial urgency to this." Citing national awards the water department has earned, Mayor Terry Bellamy asserted that the state is targeting a system that's already well-run.
Nonetheless, Council members noted they're willing to proceed with working out the details of a transfer, but said questions about governance, the entities' debt, the effects on rate payers of a merger, compensation and numerous other matters need to be addressed before the city can go forward in good faith. Council directed staff to conduct its own study on the financial impacts of a merger.
"This is part of operating in good faith. It means going to the voters and asking 'what do you want?'[and] going to other municipalities and asking 'do you want this?' and presenting the facts to the entities involved," Smith said. "It's kind of a kitchen-sink approach."
Council member Cecil Bothwell suggested asking the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners to expand the referendum vote by including county precincts that receive city water. The city has also contacted the local legislative delegation to try to arrange a meeting. According to city staff, Sen. Martin Nesbitt, Reps. Patsy Keever and Susan Fisher have replied. Sen. Tom Apodaca and Moffitt have not responded. The city will try to meet with the legislators on Aug. 27, and Bellamy asked staff to re-extend an invitation to Apodaca and Moffitt.
Below are Twitter dispatches from this afternoon's worksession:
10:59 a.m. RT @mxnews: City plans to begin study of MSD merger http://t.co/JojHmYoQ
10:59 a.m. City plans to begin study of MSD merger http://t.co/zicCOFaP
3:20 p.m. Off to cover Council water system worksession. Follow along or comment at if you'd like.
3:33 p.m. Council worksession begins. City Mgr Gary Jackson: important for Council to get update on water system, MSD efforts
3:36 p.m. Jackson: MSD reps declined to come present about merger study they're doing
3:38 p.m. Water Director Steve Shoaf: "We're operating a successful, well-run water dept." Budget of $33 million.
3:41 p.m. Council member Cecil Bothwell is absent.
3:41 p.m. Shoaf: Trying to get record of water system's fixed assets, work closely w finance to close budgets for finished projects
3:43 p.m. Shoaf: Water main 19 miles of pipe. Steel pipes date back to 1950s, cast iron pipes 80 years old, need to evaluate
3:46 p.m. Shoaf: Moving from crisis reaction to planning ahead with water system.
3:48 p.m. Shoaf: Investigating state of North Fork Dam, being proactive.
3:49 p.m. Jackson noted trepidation city's water employees feel about system merger. Bellamy: Sorry, "this is not something we asked for"
3:50 p.m. Bellamy, staff touting system's high bond ranting, recent national award for dept under Shoaf's leadership
3:51 p.m. Bellamy: The #ncga legislation on Asheville's water system "not based upon an egregiously-run system." Ours is well-run.
3:59 p.m. Council mem Marc Hunt: System going about "diligent improvement as usual."
4:05 p.m. Shoaf: Our billing is already consolidated with MSD, coordinate on projects
4:06 p.m. Shoaf: MSD has hired company to study impacts of merger w city system and other local systems.
4:07 p.m. Shoaf: #ncga study committee "had tunnel vision" on water system options, should look at number of options
4:08 p.m. Jackson: study doesn't analyze governance, compensation issues, public comment.
4:10 p.m. Tony McDowell, city finance: Will study various merger options (incl absorbing MSD into city system), change in water rates...
4:11 p.m. ...And value of city's water system. First part of study should take ~60 days.
4:14 p.m. Jackson: Range of options we're not in spot to study. Raftellis rep: "Host of models" areas use for water. We can lay those out
4:17 p.m. Bellamy wants to look at MSD's enabling legislation to propose poss laws counteracting future loss of seats for Asheville
4:21 p.m. Council mem Gordon Smith: "Seems to be an artificial urgency to this" to slap something together by end of year
4:22 p.m. Smith: Instructed by #ncga committee to work in good faith w MSD, but not given time to do so.
4:23 p.m. Smith: Want to re-extend invite to others in region to work on solution.
4:24 p.m. Council mem Bothwell's arrived
4:24 p.m. Hunt: We need more time to assess options for water system. Really important w engage w MSD
4:25 p.m. Hunt: Might designate part of Council to deal w issue in ongoing fashion.
4:27 p.m. Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer: City will conduct study of merger possibilities, talk w other local entities.
4:28 p.m. Manheimer: Willing to work in good faith, but need more information about what it means for Asheville and our rate-payers
4:29 p.m. Manheimer: For example, both city and MSD have some debt. Change has to take that into acct. Need that kind of info
4:30 p.m. Manheimer: Also need to know how our voters feel about water system issue.
4:31 p.m. Manheimer: Under state law, we can ask voters to approve change in water system through referendum
4:34 p.m. Davis: Still not clear what invitation from MSD entailed. Need more clarity on what negotiations over water system would mean.
4:36 p.m. Manheimer: Think MSD quoted #ncga water system study because it's not very clear what it's supposed to do.
4:37 p.m. Davis: Get the impression MSD likes where we're going, prefers it. "Don't know where we're going" on this
4:38 p.m. Manheimer: We can use what tools we have. We can ask voters to voice their opinion and do our own analysis
4:40 p.m. Smith: Referendum is part of "full court press" to operate in good faith, also means talking to other parties too.
4:40 p.m. Davis: wondering if referendum is best way to handle situation. Let's see if county will make statement on water
4:42 p.m. Smith: Political side is to let #ncga know where public is on issue, not just one representative in minority of local delegation
4:43 p.m. (That's Smith referring to Rep. Tim Moffitt, who chaired the #ncga water study commission)
4:45 p.m. Bellamy: Let's have MSD spell out process a little more, but need to move fast "they're already moving ahead w/out us"
4:46 p.m. Council mem Chris Pelly: "Top-down process" from #ncga frustrating. Opp to put merger before voters important part of the process
4:47 p.m. Pelly: Referendum is an opportunity for regular citizens to weigh in.
4:48 p.m. Asst City Atty Martha Walker-McGlohon: State law does give city power to hold referendum.
4:49 p.m. Bothwell: Should ask commissioners to include county districts served by city water in referendum
4:51 p.m. Council directs staff to draw up referendum on water system transfer for Nov. Will vote on details Aug. 14.
4:53 p.m. Bellamy: Invited legislators to meet with us on this issue. #ncga Sen. Nesbitt, Reps. Keever, Fisher agreed to Aug. 22.
4:54 p.m. Bellamy: Asked legislators what days would work for them. Rep. Moffitt and Sen. Apodaca didn't respond to request to meet.
4:56 p.m. Correction: Council meeting w #ncga delegation (or part of it) 1:30pm on Aug. 27. Bellamy: Re-extend invite to Moffitt, Apodaca.
4:59 p.m. City will try to get word out on water meetings, analysis via info in water bills, website, announcements.
5:01 p.m. Meeting adjourned.