(In this photo, Asheville City Manager Gary Jackson and City council members Jan Davis, Esther Manheimer and Chris Pelly talk with Henderson County Commissioner Charles Messer. Photo by Bill Rhodes)
The public weighed in on the fate of the city’s water system today, Feb. 23, with the majority telling a study group of four legislators that the utility should remain in the city’s hands. The day began with sessions designated for local elected officials and Asheville residents to make their views known.
“Today the system runs very efficiently. We have excellent credit. To consider taking the system is not the most efficient way to run a water system,” Asheville City Council member Jan Davis said.
The study commission is chaired by state Rep. Tim Moffitt, who represents the western part of Buncombe County. He was joined by Reps. Bill Brawley, Bill Brisson, and Chuck McGrady, also members of the committee. Brisson is the only Democrat. Rep. Tom Murry, the fifth member of the commission, wasn’t there.
|Buncombe County Commissioner Holly Jones speaks passionately about the money the study on water is costing, and is projected to cost. Photo by Bill Rhodes|
Moffitt’s fellow Buncombe representatives, Patsy Keever and Susan Fisher, criticized the group, asserting they’d been shut out of any study committees, especially this one, and that most people are fine with the current status of the water system.
“I have had thousands upon thousands of emails over the four terms I’ve been sent back to the General Assembly. None of them have expressed any concern about water,” Fisher said. “None of them have expressed concern about the way the water system was being run.”
She admitted that the rest of the local delegation had pressured her into voting for the Sullivan Acts, a series of state laws that prevent Asheville from charging non-city residents more for water, among other constraints. Fisher cautioned the committee to listen to their constituents instead of pursuing a “divide and conquer” approach that might lead to privatization.
Not everyone was set against taking the water system out of Asheville’s hands. Mike Edney, a Henderson County commissioner, said he “still feels the cold steel of the knives they [the city of Asheville] stuck in our backs.” He blamed city leaders for the 2005 dissolution of the regional water authority and said he wants the water system out of Asheville’s hands again.
However, Hendersonville Mayor Barbara Volks said that her town was happy with its own water system. A regional water authority would be ”unnecessarily complicated.”
While the city and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners have had sometimes bitter disputes over the fate of the water system, Chair David Gantt told the commission that those days are in the past. “Five years ago I was totally in favor of an independent authority,” Gantt said. “But times have changed … the city put $40 million in the system right off the bat.”
Moffitt’s participation in the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative think-tank that’s advocated privatization, was a target of frequent criticism. In one case, Moffitt told a speaker to “stick to the topic” when he brought up the connection.
None of the Asheville residents who addressed the commission were in favor of moving the water system to an independent authority or shifting management and ownership to the Metropolitan Sewerage District. Some called the committee “worthless” or similar epithets. Others claimed water service has improved since the city took control.
“Why are you doing this?” city resident Nelson Cobb asked the committee.
“Those from Raleigh morally should not take this decision from local hands,” Robbie Schweitzer said, a view many of the other speakers also asserted. “As a citizen of North Carolina, I resent this type of heavy-handed governance.” Without more local representation on the committee, people would, he said, see the committee’s actions as “power-grabbing deceit.” — David Forbes
Buncombe residents weigh in
Many Buncombe County residents echoed the concerns of Ashevillians during the time allotted for them to speak later in the day, with the vast majority arguing that the city should maintain control of the system.
About an hour and a half in to the session, Davyne Dial noted that over 20 people had spoken against making any major changes compared to only two who argued in favor of transferring control to the Metropolitan Sewage District or another regional authority.
“So the argument that all these people living in the county are so threatened? I’m sorry, but your argument is not holding water here,” Dial asserted.
Jeff McLarty, host of the AFM News Hour on the Asheville FM internet radio station, urged committee members to heed the message they were getting from the public.
“I hope that there’s some legitimate listening going on, and this is not just a little piece of political theatre. I hope your minds are already made up,” he said.
|Asheville City Council member Gordon Smith speaks to committee at WNC Ag Center.|
Soon, however, local public–interest activist Barry Summers – who’s been outspoken in his criticism of the study committee and characterized their efforts as a step towards privatizing the system – stepped up to perform a bit political theater himself. Implying that the mostly Republican committee’s study represented a power grab for the party after gaining control of the N.C. General Assembly for the first time in over a century, he offered some backhanded compliments that drew laughs among the 50 or so attendees.
“I want to commend you for having the confidence that the current majority party will permanently rule the General Assembly and that there will not be a renewed cycle of retribution,” he said. “And that there will never come a day when the aggrieved parties in this seizure are going to come looking for your assets,” he added, drawing a grin from Moffitt.
Not everyone was in agreement that the system should be managed by the city of Asheville, however.
Conservative activist Robert Malt said that all the talk of possible privatization spurred by Summers and others was counter productive, noting that Moffitt has repeatedly said the committee isn’t considering such a move.
“This seems like a red herring that’s being used to try to stop what I think is a good process – if it ends up in a place where everybody is represented equally,” said Malt. “The city of Asheville wants to use water as a club to force people to be voluntarily annexed. The rest of this is a diversion.”
Malt also argued that any new management entity needs to be accountable to all residents of Buncombe County who get the service – not just Asheville voters.
Under the management of city government, the current system is “accountable to the people who live in the city of Asheville. It’s not accountable to me. I pay the same rate … but I have no say. …We have no vote – that’s wrong and it needs to be fixed,” he maintained. “Whatever you end up deciding, it has to be representative of all of the people that pay. Everyone that pays, gets a say.”
— Jake Frankel
Henderson County expresses concern, business leaders give their two cents
By mid-afternoon, the public hearing had more empty chairs present than people. Beginning at 3 p.m., members of the study committee took comments from residents of Henderson County. The hearing allocated an hour to listen to residents of Henderson County, but did not need it when only five people signed up to speak. Instead, the committee only needed about 20 minutes.
Though it was a small pool of representation, four out of the five women who spoke said they did not favor a regional water authority. One resident, Deborah Stevens, said she was adamantly against the creation of a regional water authority.
Stevens, who is also a member of the Green River Community Association, remarked, “Local government is the most accountable form of government. Surrender of control of water resources to a regional control is a surrender of local representation and local accountability.” She went on to say that the creation of a regional water authority would eradicate local accountability of water quality, stewardship, environmental impact and rate control. She added it would also dilute the interest of smaller communities in favor of the interests of larger urban entities.
But it was not just fears about the loss of local control that make Henderson County residents wary of a regional water authority. Former Henderson County commissioner Renee Kumor said history will make it difficult for her county to forgive and forget what happened between Henderson County and the city of Asheville. “Although I have heard disclaimers of improved stewardship coming from the current members of Asheville City Council, I believe that they are fighting the memory of generations of bullying and scheming from their predecessors,” Kumor said. She pleaded that the committee find long-term solutions and think at least 50 years out in regard to water management.
After the hearing, McGrady said he was not surprised by his county’s small turnout because, “So much of Henderson County’s water is supplied by the Hendersonville system. So I don’t think a lot of Henderson County residents view this as their issue.”
However, for the hearing’s final hour a few business leaders made their way to the WNC Agricultural Center to remind members of the study committee that this decision about the water system could affect their ability to generate revenue.
Dwight Butner, owner of the downtown Asheville restaurant Vincenzo’s Ristorante, said there has been a lot of nonsense surrounding the debate about who owns the water system. “By saying that people who pay for their water rates own the system is like saying that patrons own my restaurant because they pay for my food,” he said.
Director of Asheville Downtown Association Joe Minicozzi read the association’s position statement aloud at the meeting. The association’s statement declared that Sullivan Acts II and III are no longer necessary. Minicozzi read, “These acts operate to compromise the financial integrity and future prosperity of our city, county and region.”
At the end of the hearing, Moffitt said he thought the day was long but worthwhile. “It’s always good when we in Raleigh can go to the local area and make it convenient for folks to have their voices heard.” — Caitlin Byrd
Below are Tweets from today’s hearing:
9:06 A.M. Demonstrators outside Ag Center, in favor of city keeping water system. #avlnews http://t.co/Gh9SZTVr
9:08 A.M. Water system hearing about to begin. #avlnews Follow along at
9:10 A.M. 9-10am for elected official comment, 10-12 for Avl residents, 1-3pm county residents, 3-4 Henderson Cty residents, 4-close biz comm
9:11 A.M. Henderson County Commissioner Mike Edney: City betrayed partners in water agreement that ended in 2005.
9:12 A.M. Edney: “Still feel the cold steel from the knives they stuck in our backs”
9:13 A.M. Edney: We should have a regional water authority. Asheville shouldn’t be further compensated.
9:16 A.M. mxnews Follow today for live dispatches from the state water-system committee; hearing at WNC Ag Center today #avlnews
9:16 A.M. Hendersonville Mayor Barbara Volk talking about qualities of her town’s water system.
9:17 A.M. Volk: See participation in regional system “unnecessarily complicated” for Hendersonville.
9:20 A.M. State Rep. Patsy Keever: Should never privatize water system. This is an unnecessary study, expensive, unasked for
9:22 A.M. MaryCaitlinByrd The study commitee hearing is today. @ is there now. Follow along with him and our hashtag.
9:22 A.M. Keever: Water system study further erodes trust w state, these are local issues. Asks for her and Rep. Susan Fisher’s inclusion.
9:23 A.M. Asheville Council member Jan Davis: Felt like last committee mtg got focused on history instead of current fact-finding
9:24 A.M. MaryCaitlinByrd Remember: you can tweet about the hearing today, too. Just use hashtag.
9:24 A.M. Davis: Yes, water system paid for by ratepayers, but that’s how most utilities are paid for
9:25 A.M. Davis: Under old water authority, improvements weren’t being made, city needed to leave, but we could have done it less abruptly
9:26 A.M. Davis: Today Asheville’s water system runs well, has excellent credit. To put into another system not efficient
9:28 A.M. Davis: This political issue, not management issue. This study is a distraction.
9:30 A.M. Clapping for Davis’ remarks. Asheville Council mem Chris Pelly up next
9:32 A.M. Pelly: Told privatization won’t happen, given Rep. Moffitt’s ALEC membership, role in public-private partnership study, not assured
9:33 A.M. Pelly: You’ve ruled out referendum, despite two opp to do so.
9:36 A.M. Henderson Commissioner Charlie Messer saying city, Buncombe never held up end of deal.
9:44 A.M. MaryCaitlinByrd We’ve got live coverage of today’s public hearing all day: http://t.co/WQWm9i3c #avlnews
9:45 A.M. Buncombe Commish Chair David Gantt: This is best left a local issue. No local gov, no local biz group asked for this
9:46 A.M. Gantt: 5 yrs ago, favored regional water authority, but since Asheville took over, put $40 mil in system, made improvements
9:47 A.M. State Rep. Susan Fisher: Pressured by local delegation to go along w Sullivan Acts (restricting Asheville’s water system)
9:48 A.M. Fisher: Learned since to listen to my constituents. Get 1000s of emails, none concerned about way water system is being run
9:49 A.M. Fisher: #ncga right now has mentality of “divide and conquer.” Keep cities, counties fighting, may open way for privatization.
9:51 A.M. Fisher: Rep. Keever and I kept off all study committees. “They didn’t want to hear from us.” Committee “pretty tilted”
9:52 A.M. Buncombe Commissioner Holly Jones: Elected by entire county, and served on city council. Fully support city keeping water system.
9:54 A.M. Jones: This is causing “cloud of uncertainty” about water system, may scare away biz looking at area for quality of water.
9:56 A.M. Jones: Every utility in state “should quake in their boots” at justifications being used to look at seizing water system
9:57 A.M. Jones: Transferring water system would be costly, bog down in legal costs.
9:59 A.M. Jones: Legislators have responsibility to use power appropriately, “not to settle old scores”
10:02 A.M. Asheville City Council member Marc Hunt: Want to highlight need to preserve environmental quality of watershed
10:04 A.M. Hunt: Protecting land supported on both sides of aisle, cites fmr commish Chair Nathan Ramsey’s role in conservation.
10:06 A.M. Hunt: Asheville is very well-run, but combination of inability to grow due to restrictions, conflict over water put in tight spot
10:07 A.M. Asheville Council mem Gordon Smith: In my tenure, seen city/county improve relations. We’ve put better part of water dispute behind
10:08 A.M. Smith: Clearly need to mend some fences w Henderson County. But Asheville’s created reliability in system. This endangers that
10:10 A.M. Smith: This study is threatening Asheville’s attempt to woo brewers to area. Know that’s not intentional, but is side effect
10:11 A.M. Smith: Water study process “also tearing open old wounds” that we’d made progress to repairing.
10:13 A.M. Audience members asking if microphone can be moved forward. Moffitt says will address concern during break
10:16 A.M. Mills River Mayor Roger Snyder: Don’t like to stick our nose in other people’s business. Concerned about land use rules.
10:18 A.M. Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy: Supposed to look at financial stability, we have strong bond rating.
10:19 A.M. Bellamy: “we’re not the old system.” Spend $ to improve, repair system. Good record.
10:20 A.M. Bellamy reading Council’s resolution in support of Asheville keeping the water system
10:23 A.M. 10-min recess
10:44 A.M. hearing resuming. Public comment from Asheville residents.
10:45 A.M. Mark Cates: Asheville needs a long-term solution, more $ in system.
10:47 A.M. Cates: Want to address Rep. Fisher. She spoke of balance, but we have none on Council, commish. Many people not represented.
10:48 A.M. Audience member interrupts Cates, objects to 3-minute limit on individual speakers.
10:49 A.M. Cates: Experienced multiple water closures personally. Might say cherry-picking, but are issues
10:52 A.M. Next speaker: System probably worth $2 billion. If you take, will you give me my share as a taxpayer?
10:53 A.M. Robbie Schweitzer: Support system remaining in Asheville’s hands. Decisions about this best at local level.
10:55 A.M. Schweitzer: Intent of this study solely directed at Asheville, singling out one group is unjust and prejudiced.
10:57 A.M. Robert Zeiber: Have sympathy for abuse Moffitt’s taken, but think he brought it on himself w way committee assembled
10:58 A.M. Zeiber: Don’t see a problem w way Asheville system is managed. If want local authority, locals should be ones to study
10:59 A.M. Rupa Roose: Capitalism has no place in matters of survival, water is necessary to survive. Access to water a universal right.
11:01 A.M. Roose: Seen major improvements in service since Asheville took over water system. Wonder why #ncga is doing this.
11:03 A.M. Samuel Special: Dismayed w stacking of committee, absence of evening session. Easily see this way to limit input.
11:04 A.M. Special bringing up Moffitt’s ALEC membership, other legislation. Moffitt tells him to “stick to the topic”
11:07 A.M. Paul Delamayo: Water required for us to live. Feel this is headed to privatization.
11:10 A.M. Bridget Nelson: Leave water system with city. Moffitt’s made guarantees other options won’t lead to privatization, no way to be sure
11:11 A.M. Nelson: Said people outside of city don’t have voice in how system managed. But that’s a perk of joining city.
11:12 A.M. Lael Gray: Want to congratulate Moffitt for getting people paying attention to water issues.
11:14 A.M. Gray: Asheville raising rates on large users not a reason to seize the system. Want local representatives.
11:15 A.M. Gray: Current study group represents outside agency, needs to disband or have more Asheville representation.
11:16 A.M. Valerie Ho: A lot of my friends couldn’t be here because they had to work. Why having 3 hearings in Raleigh.
11:17 A.M. Ho: Don’t recognize committee picked for political affiliation instead of representing water system users.
11:19 A.M. Michael Blankenship loudly criticizing Moffitt not showing up for some of the earlier forums.
11:20 A.M. Blankenship: “This committee is worthless” Also no people of color, no women on it.
11:24 A.M. Kathy Holt: Asheville has some of the cleanest water in country, if not world. Need to protect water, city’s done good job
11:26 A.M. Holt also bringing up ALEC, Art Pope donations to Moffitt. Regional authority “camel’s nose under the tent”
11:27 A.M. Cheryl Oringo: Want to keep Asheville’s water w city. “This change would not be for our good”
11:28 A.M. Elaine Lite: Quite familiar w sordid history. Are there not more important matters for #ncga?
11:31 A.M. Lite: Water system is an issue of local importance, needs to be left w locals
11:32 A.M. Julie Mayfield, exec director WNC Alliance: City’s been a good steward of water system.
11:33 A.M. Mayfield: Sprawl remains major threat to region.
11:35 A.M. Hartwell Carson, French Broad riverkeeper, WNC Alliance: One of Sierra Nevada’s reasons for coming here clean water
11:37 A.M. Carson: Seen no one here calliing for taking away Asheville’s water system.
11:39 A.M. Nelson Cobb: Want to keep Asheville water local. It’s clean here. “Why are you doing this?”
11:41 A.M. Next speaker: Realtors told me able to live out in county but get cheap rates due to Sullivan Acts. Chose to live in city
11:42 A.M. Speaker: Feel Moffitt causing strife by “fearmongering, divisiveness” trying to help his re-election.
11:45 A.M. Fmr Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick: Sullivan Acts single out Asheville, “only city in state burdened by these ridiculous laws.”
11:47 A.M. Charlie Hume: “Struggle to understand the need for this study.”
11:48 A.M. Hume: Not seen much dissatisfaction about city’s management of water system from citizens, biz, most officials
11:51 A.M. Benjamin Gillam: Want us to continue to have local, transparent, accountable control of water system
11:52 A.M. Gillam: Don’t understand why #ncga is getting involved with Asheville’s water pricing, harkens back to failed principles of USSR
11:53 A.M. Committee recessed until 1pm, when Buncombe County residents will speak. @JakeFrankel will cover that part
12:20 PM MaryCaitlinByrd There’s a one-hour break today at the water hearing from noon-1 pm
12:21 PM MaryCaitlinByrd When the hearing resumes at 1pm, it will be for Buncombe County residents to speak. @JakeFrankel will be there
12:28 PM JakeFrankel Yup MT @MaryCaitlinByrd: When the hearing resumes at 1pm, it will b Buncombe County residents to speak. @JakeFrankel will be there
1:37 PM JakeFrankel At BC portion of forum, Heather Rayburn says it’s not fair to do this during day, when most people have to work.
1:39 PM JakeFrankel Rayburn calls study an “ugly attempt to steal the water system”
1:43 PM JakeFrankel Commish candidate Terry Van Duyn: this process has dredged up old animosities, making it harder to work constructively together.
1:47 PM JakeFrankel Activist Barry Summers tells GOP leaders on committee if they seize that others may come for their “assets” down the Rd
1:49 PM JakeFrankel Summers emphasized the “ass” in “assets,” eliciting a grin from Rep. Moffitt
1:54 PM JakeFrankel ADA’s Joe Minacozzi says Moffitt is building resentment between city/county, study isn’t fair to city residents
1:59 PM JakeFrankel GOP activist Robert Malt calls the talk of “privatizing” the system a red herring, notes he’s heard no talk of that from com members
2:01 PM JakeFrankel Malt: as county resident, I get but don’t have a say in city management, gov, don’t get to vote for city leaders, it’s wrong.
2:02 PM JakeFrankel Malt: Everyone who pays for should get a say in it’s management. This is a good process.
2:07 PM JakeFrankel Jane Whilden and her campaign manager are here scribbling notes. Dem Whilden is running against Moffitt in NCGA dist. 116
2:11 PM JakeFrankel Davyne Dial: this process doesn’t make sense, so of course people are going to worry about privatization
2:13 PM JakeFrankel Dial: Argument that county residents want change doesn’t hold up. Those speaking out today wanting change outnumbered 22-2
2:17 PM mxenv @JakeFrankel thanks for the dial reading on county comments…keep it up! That’s an important stat on …
2:18 PM JakeFrankel County commish candidate Mike Fryar: Hikes to rates have hurt manufacturing and jobs over the years.
2:22 PM JakeFrankel Fryar: we don’t want to take from AVL, we want a new management system that’s fair to city AND county residents.
2:32 PM JakeFrankel Betty Jackson wants a regional system that takes concerns of county residents in to account, says fears of privatization r ignorant
2:37 PM JakeFrankel Robert Zieber wants committee to recommend ways to lower rates, regardless of what entity manages
2:40 PM JakeFrankel That’s it for folks who signed up to speak during county portion of meeting. Adjourned till 3 p.m. Follow @MaryCaitlinByrd for more
2:58 PM MaryCaitlinByrd With 4 min until 3 pm portion not many here http://t.co/iKPaOyFo
3:00 PM MaryCaitlinByrd This next portion of the hearing is for Henderson County residents
3:09 PM MaryCaitlinByrd Attendance for this portion is looking pretty sparse at the moment
3:12 PM MaryCaitlinByrd About 40 people or so are here. All sprinkled around the room
3:22 PM MaryCaitlinByrd Deborah Stevens saying she does not support regionalization of water system
3:25 PM MaryCaitlinByrd Former Henderson county commissioner says she thinks current avl city gov. fighting a memory of bullying
3:27 PM MaryCaitlinByrd Barbara Hick from southern Henderson county says they have the cleanest water because they have worked to make it that way
3:28 PM MaryCaitlinByrd Says she would not like to see water taken elsewhere
3:29 PM MaryCaitlinByrd Hendo county resident says she fears regional water authority because she sees it as preview to privatization
3:32 PM MaryCaitlinByrd Mary jane pell from edinborough says she would like to see regional authority only if kept in local quarters
3:33 PM MaryCaitlinByrd That’s it for the Henderson county residents who signed up to speak
3:35 PM MaryCaitlinByrd Recessing until 4 pm
|Rep. Tim Moffitt (R-Buncombe) at the podium during the hearing on water issues. Photo by Bill Rhodes|
3:52 PM MaryCaitlinByrd Just spoke with Renee Kumor. When asked if she thinks hendo county will ever be able to forgive & forget w/ avl history: forget, yes
3:58 PM MaryCaitlinByrd Next portion of hearing for asheville business
3:59 PM MaryCaitlinByrd Next portion of hearing for businesses
4:01 PM JakeFrankel . @gordondsmith While I was there, yes, absolutely. @marycaitlinbyrd @davidforbes
4:01 PM MaryCaitlinByrd Next portion of hearing about to start
4:03 PM MaryCaitlinByrd Vincenzzos restaurante owner: there is a lot of nonsense surrounding this debate
4:05 PM MaryCaitlinByrd Dwight says to say people who pay water rates own the system is like saying his patrons own his restaurant bc they pay for his food.