Back to the future

As Asheville geared up to file a lawsuit against state legislation that transfers the city's water system to the Metropolitan Sewage District, Buncombe County officials released documents showing a series of offers made to the city years ago. The rejected proposals offered to compensate the city in various ways for transferring the system to a new independent authority — and now some of those discarded ideas have resurfaced.

On May 7, Gov. Pat McCrory opted to let House Bill 488 become law without his signature. The legislation mandates a transfer of the city's water system to MSD, effective May 15, and provides no remuneration at all.

According to a summary released to Xpress, from July 2004 through Aug. 2006, Buncombe officials made 11 specific proposals during negotiations to avert the demise of the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson. Some would've resulted in MSD taking control of the water system, and one proposal offered the city roughly $135 million over the course of 30 years. Several offers gave city representatives the majority of seats on a new, independent board that would oversee the water system. Most of the proposals involved the county taking over funding and management of city recreation facilities, such as the Asheville Civic Center, WNC Nature Center and Memorial Stadium; the change could possibly have saved the city millions of dollars a year.

Chairman David Gantt, the only current county commissioner who served on the board at the time, acted as negotiator during the talks. He recalls that the county even offered to build a brand new civic center for Asheville. "And the city said, 'No, I wouldn't take a billion dollars for our water,'" Gantt says.

During the years the proposals were on the table, Rep. Nathan Ramsey served as chair of the board; he also participated in the talks, according to Gantt. Now serving his freshman term in the Statehouse, Ramsey joined with Republican colleague Rep. Tim Moffitt this year in sponsoring the bill to transfer control of the water system against the city's will.

Old ideas made new

Under Ramsey's guidance in the Statehouse, some of those old ideas have come back to life.

In Raleigh, the Buncombe legislator introduced HB 418, which would allow the county and its six municipalities to voluntarily form a joint culture-and-recreation authority. Approved by the House May 6, and likely to pass the Senate, the law would give the county the authority to levy a separate property tax (up to 7 cents per $100 valuation) and issue bonds for capital improvements.

Gantt reports that the county is already preparing to take advantage of the legislation. If the city opts in, he argues, the financial benefits might alleviate the costs of losing the water system — much in the same way the original county proposals intended. "We're going to encourage them, because this is a chance for the whole county to help with municipal projects," Gantt says. "And it's a way for them to get help with their budget pressures."

Eventually, Gantt says, the creation of a new parks authority could lead to a new civic center, greenways and completion of the Asheville Art Museum's $24 million facility upgrade.

"We can have a coordinated big-picture plan for some things, and probably move further than any individual political unit could on its own. So I think it's a win-win. It's huge," Gantt maintains. "It could save the city up to $8 million [per year]. We're not talking chump change. We're talking big money here."

He also adds that the parks bill helps address one of the longstanding challenges facing Asheville officials: the fact that city residents have, historically, had to fund infrastructure heavily used by people who live outside the city limits and don't pay for it.

With a new parks authority, "people outside the city pay the county tax, and it goes towards city things too," Gantt explains. "So it's the first time the city's kind of gotten what they asked for, which is, the region pays for some city stuff. And their budget goes down. … So it's a great thing all around."

However, unlike the water directive, joining the authority would be optional. And Gantt acknowledges that challenges to consolidation are likely to arise — much as they did during those contentious water negotiations years ago.

"The issue's going to be, can all the members agree on how to proceed," he predicts. "That will be tough."

Go to http://avl.mx/ta to download a copy of the documents and see all the details of the previous compensation deals Buncombe County offered to the city of Asheville.

— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or jfrankel@mountainx.com.

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