By the time local residents and state legislators assembled at the WNC Agricultural Center for a Feb. 21 public hearing, opinions concerning the future of Asheville's water system had reached the boiling point.
Rep. Tim Moffitt, a Buncombe County Republican, made waves last year when, on May 4, he introduced a bill that called for seizing the utility — run by the city since the breakup of the Regional Water Authority in 2005 — and handing it off to the Metropolitan Sewerage District.
Following a major backlash by local elected officials and residents alike, Moffitt backed off. On May 26, he turned it into a study bill, establishing a committee to make a recommendation on whether to leave the system with the city, turn it over to MSD or to a new, independent water authority. Asked about the change, Moffitt said this had been his intent all along.
Moffitt (the only member from Asheville), chairs the five-person study committee; three of the five represent counties outside Western North Carolina. The other members are fellow Republicans Chuck McGrady (Henderson County), William Brawley (Mecklenburg County) and Tom Murry (Wake County) and Democrat William Brisson (Bladen and Cumberland counties).
The committee held its first meeting Jan. 23; except for the Feb. 21 public hearing, all its meetings are being held in Raleigh — another source of controversy. The study committee is charged with delivering a recommendation by April 20. After that, the fate of Asheville’s water system will be up to the General Assembly, which has nigh-absolute power over local governments.
In the meantime, however, several forums on the issue have been held locally, including a Feb. 20 event sponsored by the Mountain Voices Alliance (see sidebar, "Steamed Up").
Murry did not attend the Feb. 21 hearing, but the other four study committee members were on hand to hear from local residents. The all-day session was divided into sections allocated to different constituencies: elected officials, Asheville residents, Buncombe County residents, Henderson County residents and local business leaders. There was some overlap in those categories, however, blurring the lines somewhat.
Here’s an overview of how the public hearing played out.
Elected officials, Asheville residents
Local elected officials and city residents mostly told the study committee that Asheville should retain its water system.
“Today the system runs very efficiently; we have excellent credit,” noted Asheville City Council member Jan Davis, adding, “To consider taking [it] is not the most efficient way to run a water system.”
Democratic Reps. Patsy Keever and Susan Fisher, Moffitt's colleagues in the local legislative delegation, leveled harsh criticisms, saying they'd been shut out of all of this session’s study committees, particularly this one. Most people, they maintained, are happy with the system’s current status.
“I have had thousands upon thousands of emails over the four terms I've been sent back to the General Assembly,” said Fisher. “None of them have expressed concern about the way the water system was being run.”
During her first term in Raleigh, she admitted, the rest of the local delegation had pressured her into voting for the Sullivan Acts, a series of state laws aimed solely at Asheville that limit what the city can do with its water system. Fisher urged committee members to listen to the people most affected by their decision rather than pursuing a “divide and conquer” approach that might lead to privatization.
Not everyone opposed taking the water system away from Asheville. Henderson County Commissioner Mike Edney said he “still feels the cold steel of the knives [the city of Asheville] stuck in our backs,” blaming them for the 2005 dissolution of the Regional Water Authority and saying he wants the system out of Asheville's hands.
But Hendersonville Mayor Barbara Volk said her town is happy with its own water system and would view a regional authority as “unnecessarily complicated.”
Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair David Gantt, meanwhile, said that while the city and county had had bitter disputes over water in the past, things are different now.
“Five years ago, I was totally in favor of an independent authority,” Gantt told the study committee. “But times have changed.” After pulling out of the water agreement, he noted, “The city put $40 million into the system right off the bat.”
Moffitt's membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative think tank that has advocated privatization, was a target of frequent criticism. In one case, Moffitt told a speaker who mentioned the connection to “stick to the topic.”
None of the Asheville residents who addressed the committee favored moving the system to either an independent authority or the Metropolitan Sewerage District. Some used words such as “worthless” in describing the committee. Others said water service has improved since the city took control.
“Why are you doing this?” demanded Asheville resident Nelson Cobb.
“Those from Raleigh morally should not take this decision from local hands,” declared Robbie Schweitzer, echoing an oft-repeated refrain. “As a citizen of North Carolina, I resent this type of heavy-handed governance.” Without more local representation on the study committee, he asserted, people would see its actions as “power-grabbing deceit.”
Buncombe County residents
During their portion of the hearing, Buncombe County residents (some of them from Asheville) kept up the drumbeat, the vast majority arguing that the city should maintain control of the system.
About an hour and a half into the session, Davyne Dial noted that more than 20 people had spoken against making any major changes, while only two had favored transferring control to the Metropolitan Sewage District or a regional authority.
"So the argument that all these people living in the county are so threatened? I'm sorry, but your argument is not holding water here," she asserted.
Jeff McLarty of Asheville FM Internet radio’s “AFM News Hour,” urged committee members to heed the message they were getting from the public.
"I hope that there's some legitimate listening going on, and this is not just a little piece of political theater," he said, adding, “I hope your minds aren’t already made up.”
Meanwhile, local activist Barry Summers — a vocal critic of the study committee who’s characterized it as a potential step toward privatizing the system — engaged in a bit of political theater himself. Implying that the committee's study amounted to a power grab by Republicans who’d gained control of the General Assembly for the first time in more than a century, he offered some backhanded compliments that drew laughs from the 50 or so attendees.
"I want to commend you for having the confidence that the current majority party will permanently rule the General Assembly, and that there will not be a renewed cycle of retribution," said Summers. "And that there will never come a day when the aggrieved parties in this seizure are going to come looking for your assets," he added, drawing a grin from Moffitt.
Not everyone felt the city should continue managing the system, however.
Conservative activist Robert Malt called all the talk of privatization "a red herring that's being used to try to stop what I think is a good process — if it ends up in a place where everybody is represented equally." Moffitt, noted Malt, has repeatedly said the committee isn't considering such a move.
"The city of Asheville,” asserted Malt, “wants to use water as a club to force people to be voluntarily annexed. The rest of this is a diversion."
The current system, he argued, is "accountable to the people who live in the city of Asheville; it's not accountable to me. I pay the same rate … but I have no say. … we have no vote — that's wrong, and it needs to be fixed," Malt maintained. "Whatever you end up deciding, it has to be representative of all of the people that pay: Everyone that pays gets a say."
Henderson County residents, business community
By 3 p.m., when it was Henderson County residents’ turn, the room was mostly empty. Only five people had signed up to speak, and their comments took roughly 20 minutes of the allotted hour.
Four of the five women who spoke opposed creating a regional water authority.
“Local government,” asserted Debra Stephens of the Green River Community Association, “is the most accountable form of government. Surrender of control of water resources to a regional [body] is a surrender of local representation and local accountability.” A regional water authority, she maintained, would give local residents less say in decisions concerning water quality, stewardship, environmental impact and rates while favoring larger urban areas over smaller communities.
Meanwhile, former Henderson County Commissioner Renee Kumor said history makes it hard for her county’s residents to forgive and forget. “Although I have heard disclaimers of improved stewardship coming from the current members of Asheville City Council,” she noted, “I believe that they are fighting the memory of generations of bullying and scheming from their predecessors.” Kumor pleaded with the committee to find long-term solutions to environmental issues and to think at least 50 years out.
Afterward, McGrady said he wasn’t surprised by the small turnout, because “So much of Henderson County’s water is supplied by the Hendersonville system. So I don't think a lot of Henderson County residents view this as their issue.”
The hearing's final hour was reserved for the business community. Few showed up, and only six of them spoke. Most favored leaving things the way they are, while asking committee members not to lose sight of the fact that their recommendation concerning the water system could affect local businesses’ ability to make money.
Vincenzo's Ristorante owner Dwight Butner said there’s been a lot of nonsense surrounding the debate about the water system. “Saying that people who pay their water [bills] own the system is like saying that patrons own my restaurant because they pay for my food,” he declared.
Joe Minicozzi of the Asheville Downtown Association read his organization’s position statement aloud, declaring that Sullivan Acts II and III are no longer needed. “These acts,” said Minicozzi, “operate to compromise the financial integrity and future prosperity of our city, county and region.”
At the end of the hearing, Moffitt said he thought the long day had been worthwhile, noting, “It's always good when we in Raleigh can go to the local area and make it convenient for folks to have their voices heard.”
— The authors can be contacted as follows: Caitlin Byrd (251-1333, ext. 140; firstname.lastname@example.org), David Forbes (251-1333, ext. 137; email@example.com), Jake Frankel (251-1333, ext. 115; firstname.lastname@example.org).