As Asheville gears up to file a lawsuit against state legislation that gives control of the city’s water system to the Metropolitan Sewage District, Buncombe County officials have released documents showing a series of offers made to the city years ago. The rejected proposals offered to compensate Asheville for transferring the system to an independent authority.
State legislation approved by the North Carolina General Assembly — House Bill 488 — mandates a transfer of the city’s water system to MSD, offering no remuneration at all.
From July 2004 through Aug. 2006, county officials made 11 specific offers. Some would’ve resulted in MSD taking control of the water system as it seems poised to now. However, unlike the current directive from the General Assembly, the city would’ve received substantial benefits from the county deals.
One proposal offered the city roughly $135 million over the course of 30 years. Several gave city representatives the majority of seats on the independent authority’s board. The majority of the proposals involved the county taking over the funding and management of city recreation facilities, such as the Asheville Civic Center, 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, and he recalls that the county even offered to build a brand new civic center for the city. “And the city said ‘no, I wouldn’t take a billion dollars for our water,’” he reports.
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 HB 488, which transfers control of the water system against the city’s will. It passed both chambers by wide margins and awaits a decision by Gov. Pat McCrory.
Old ideas made new
Meanwhile, under Ramsey’s leadership, some of the ideas discussed years ago during those tense water negotiations have come back to life.
In Raleigh, Ramsey introduced HB 418, a bill that would allow the county and its six municipalities to voluntarily form a joint culture and recreation authority. Approved by the N.C. 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.
And Gantt reports that the county is already preparing to take advantage of the opportunity, arguing that if the city opts to join, it could help it deal with the financial loss of losing its 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 the new authority could lead to the construction of a brand new civic center, new greenways, and the 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 it helps address one of the longstanding challenges of facing Asheville officials: The fact that the city residents have historically had to fund infrastructure heavily used by people who live outside the city limits who don’t pay for it.
A result of the new authority would be that “people outside the city pay the county tax, and it goes towards city things too,” Gantt notes. “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 new recreation 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.”