Asheville City Council reaffirms opposition to state-forced water merger, strengthens easement

Asheville City Council finally heard long-awaited reports on a possible water system merger with the Metropolitan Sewerage District today. Council reaffirmed its unanimous opposition to the state legislature forcing the issue and also strengthened the conservation easement on the local watershed.

The reports, released Friday, analyzed the costs of a merger and different scenarios, concluding that a local agreement to share services would save more because it would avoid the considerable costs of a full merger. Doug Bean — an analyst with Raftelis consulting and a former Asheville city manager — noted that in the water systems his company has analyzed, they’d never seen a forced merger scenario, and that the city’s practices mostly seem in line with others around the state. He did, however, recommend that the city, if it retains control of the system, set up a citizen advisory board.

The controversial push for a merger comes from state legislators, led by Buncombe County Rep. Tim Moffitt. Bean noted that staff in other city and county-run water systems around the water are watching the local struggle closely, concerned it could affect their own systems.

Bean worked 16 years managing Charlotte-Mecklenberg’s combined water system, a merger accomplished by inter-local agreements, not mandated by the state. He also asserted that MSD officials had erred in their estimate of compensation for the city, using a method that underrates the value of assets and isn’t traditionally used to determine a water system’s price. His “back of the envelope” assessment of the water system’s value was $177 million, rather than the $57 million pitched by MSD, he noted, but it would take a professional appraiser to really asses the value.

At the regular meeting, Council voted unanimously to reassert their opposition to any state legislation taking the water system, but added that they were committed to working out local partnerships as well. Likewise unanimously, they updated the city’s conservation easement for the watershed properties, tightening restrictions on what kind of activities are allowed in the area. The 1996 easement, while ahead of their time, were “vague and weak” now, Council member Marc Hunt said, and needed an update.

“This is not just about Asheville,” Mayor Terry Bellamy said, asserting that other cities could see similar state-driven efforts to force mergers of their systems if this one goes through.

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