Only two state lawmakers attended a Sept. 18 meeting that the Asheville City Council had scheduled specifically to dialogue with the local legislative delegation. The topic was the proposed merger of Asheville's water system with the Buncombe County Metropolitan Sewerage District, and despite the lawmakers’ meager turnout, those present did manage to get a few things off their chests.
Reps. Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville and Susan Fisher of Asheville sat down with six of the seven Council members in the U.S. Cellular Center’s banquet hall (Marc Hunt had a scheduling conflict). They discussed the city’s efforts toward a merger, as recommended by a legislative study report released in April.
That study, from a committee headed by Buncombe County Rep. Tim Moffitt (also absent due to a conflict), declared the benefits of combining the two entities "undeniable." The committee recommended that the 2013 General Assembly mandate consolidation — unless the city and MSD were engaged in "good-faith negotiations on this matter."
Since then, Council has undertaken a series of moves, which Water Resources Director Steve Shoaf outlined at the meeting. They include: taking steps to clarify the Asheville watershed’s 1996 conservation easement (which the report also called for), establishing a financial analysis group to review the merger’s impact, and conducting an evaluation/methodology study to provide models for asset value and governance.
The city has hired a consultant to interface with MSD’s rate-impact study and to post all pertinent data concerning the proposed merger on the city government website at www.ashevillenc.gov/projects.
So on Sept. 18, the question of the day was whether those efforts were sufficient to demonstrate good-faith negotiations and perhaps forestall a state-mandated merger.
"The next General Assembly," noted McGrady, "is going to be a new General Assembly." Accordingly, he explained, it can revisit the logic and economic impact of consolidation and make its own decision. If the studies now being undertaken by the city and MSD conflict with the study committee's recommendation, he said, a future bill would presumably address that.
McGrady added that he "didn't introduce the bill originally" and didn't intend to introduce a follow-up, though he might co-sponsor a bill he found acceptable.
"It almost sounds like it doesn't matter how much good faith there is — there will still be a bill introduced," commented Fisher.
"Yeah, I would suspect — if only a placeholder," McGrady agreed.
"If the citizens say no?" queried Mayor Terry Bellamy, referring to the planned Nov. 6 referendum on the potential sale or lease of the water system.
"I personally question the whole referendum, but that's your call," said McGrady. "These are difficult issues with a lot of history to them."
Referencing that troubled history, Council member Chris Pelly noted that MSD itself had been created by merging various failing sewer systems. Considering the water system’s current status, he asked McGrady, “Where is the same need?”
"In recent history, the management of the water system by the city is generally positive," McGrady replied. "But it wasn't very long ago when that was not the case. Perhaps this is the bill before the storm. Perhaps we can effect a regulatory system at a time when there is nothing driving it."
"The things that we're being penalized for are things that have happened in the past," said Bellamy. "To me, that's over. We've made investments, stopped leaks, [developed] a [capital-improvements plan] — I just don't understand how the things of the past affect the future when we've done everything right."
Fisher thanked the city for its transparency in those efforts and complimented MSD for setting a "really good example. When you have problems there, you go after them. I look forward to hearing more as the study goes forward," she concluded.
Upcoming markers along the good-faith trail include an Oct. 16 City Council work session to review internal financial and governance models; the Nov. 6 referendum (in which only city residents can vote); and the results of both MSD's rate-impact study (due in November) and another study concerning possible mergers with other public water systems in the area (expected in January).
— Contributing Editor Nelda Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.