Only two legislators made it to the Asheville City Council discussion session Tuesday afternoon, held specifically to dialogue with the local delegation concerning the proposed merger of Asheville’s water system with the Buncombe County Metropolitan Sewerage District. But those present – council members and legislators – did manage to get a few things off their chests.
Rep. Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville and Rep. Susan Fisher of Asheville joined six of the seven Council members (Marc Hunt had a scheduling conflict) for the meeting in the banquet hall of the U.S. Cellular Center, to discuss the city’s “good-faith” efforts regarding last April’s legislative study report.
That study, from a committee headed by Buncombe County Rep. Tim Moffitt (also absent due to a schedule conflict), found the benefits of combining the two entities “undeniable.” The committee recommended that the 2013 General Assembly legislate the consolidation of the two systems – with the caveat that if the parties were engaged in “good-faith negotiations” towards their own plan, such action would not be taken.
Since that time, Council has undertaken a series of moves outlined at the meeting by Steve Shoaf, director of the Asheville Water Resources Department. Included are actions to clarify the 1996 Asheville watershed conservation easement—also called for in the report—and the establishment of both a financial analysis group to review the impact of the proposed merger, and an evaluation/methodology study to provide models for asset value and governance.
The city has engaged a consultant to help track the rate impact study undertaken by MSD and to provide information to them, and is posting its accumulated information for public review on their website at ashevillenc.gov/projects.
So the question of the day was whether these undertakings were sufficient to demonstrate “good-faith negotiations” and perhaps forestall a merger mandate under state law.
“The next General Assembly,” noted McGrady, “is going to be a new General Assembly.” Accordingly, he explained, that Legislature can look again at the logic and economic impact of consolidation, and make their own decision. If current studies being undertaken by the city or MSD indicate the study committee’s recommendation was wrong, McGrady assumes a future bill would address that.
McGrady added that he “didn’t introduce the bill originally” and didn’t intend to introduce a follow-up. He might, however, co-sponsor a bill that he found acceptable, he indicated.
“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?” asked Mayor Terry Bellamy, referring to the planned referendum vote November 6 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.”
Council member Chris Pelly referred to that troubled history by commenting that MSD itself was created by merging failing sewer systems across the district. “Where is the same need?” he asked McGrady, concerning the current status of the water system.
“In recent history, the management of the water system by the city is generally positive,” McGrady answered. “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,” Bellamy said. “To me, that’s over. We’ve made investments, stopped leaks, (developed) a CIP (capital improvements plan) – I just don’t understand how the things of the past affect the future when we’ve done everything right.”
In the end, Fisher thanked the city for the transparency in its water-system undertakings, and also 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 and October 16 work session by Council to review internal financial and governance models; the November 6 referendum for city water customers; the November conclusion of MSD’s rate impact study; and the January conclusion of MSD’s additional study regarding merger with surrounding governments.
by Nelda Holder, contributing editor
To read the report of the Legislative Research Commission’s Committee on Metropolitan Sewerage/Water System, click here.