Republican state Rep. Tim Moffitt has filed legislation that would seize Asheville’s water system, turning control over to the Metropolitan Sewerage District. Asheville City Council member Bill Russell, who also sits on the MSD board, said Moffitt didn’t inform either body before proposing the legislation.
While the legislation doesn’t mention Asheville by name, it specifies “a city with a population of over 75,000 according to the most recent decennial federal census is located within a county with a population of 200,000 or over according to the most recent decennial federal census.” If the legislation passes the General Assembly, the city would have to give its entire water system to MSD within one year, and would be prohibited from operating a water system ever again.
Vice Mayor Brownie Newman says he, Council member Esther Manheimer and City Manager Gary Jackson met with Moffitt for 30 minutes during a trip to Raleigh on May 2, and the legislator did not mention the water-system bill.
“It’s baffling,” Newman tells Xpress. “It’s one thing not to be proactive, but when people have travelled four hours to see you, to talk about the issues we need to work on, it’s strange to not even mention that there’s going to be a bill to seize a water system that the city has operated for the last 100 years.”
“This was out of the blue; there was no discussion about it,” Newman says. “I’m opposed to it, I think Council will be opposed to it. It’s frankly pretty outrageous that a legislator would propose such a far-reaching piece of legislation without consulting us.”
“I would have liked to have some discussions,” Russell tells Xpress. “I’ve been on the MSD board for three and a half years and I’m certainly a big fan of consolidation and saving money. But I think there would have been a better process.”
Instead, Russell says he found out about the legislation last night, in an email from Newman.
“I had no clue, and I don’t think anybody did,” Russell added. “It’s not necessarily something I’m opposed to, but it’s like ‘wow.’ The city’s spent tens of millions of dollars investing in the infrastructure for our water department, we’ve done a lot of work over the last seven years to repair it and make good our promise when we took over the authority. To suddenly have it legislatively stripped out from under us without any public or open dialogue is certainly not a process I’m a big fan of.”
Russell also says that “if you want to hand it to the MSD, you may want to see if they can handle it in the first place.”
The city of Asheville gained control of the water system in 2005, after the dissolution of the regional water authority. Shortly afterwards, state legislation (the Sullivan Acts) sharply restricted what rates Asheville could charge, prevented it from using water service for purposes of annexation and restricted how it could spend system revenues (though those last restrictions were relaxed some in ensuing years).
Newman says he sees “no compelling reason” for the legislation and that despite the 2005 disputes between the city and Buncombe County, the city has invested $30 million in capital improvements to the water system and the issue is no longer a controversial one between the two parties.
“I simply see no basis for this, there’s been no calls from anyone in the community to do something like this,” Newman says. “Since then  there’s really been no controversy about how the system has been managed. There’s no movement to do something like this.”
As for the city’s response, “we’re going to fight this,” Newman says.
The legislation is the latest proposed state law that seeks to take assets from local government, reverse moves it has made or change the way it functions. Moffitt also proposed legislation that reverses the 2005 Biltmore Lake annexation and another bill that, without local referendum, changes the way the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners are elected (both bills passed the House).
He also joined with local Democratic Reps. Patsy Keever and Susan Fisher in proposing legislation that would seize the Asheville Regional Airport and turn it over to an independent authority. The election changes were unanimously opposed by the commissioners and the airport legislation was unanimously condemned by Asheville City Council. At the same meeting, Council members also expressed their anger at the General Assembly’s approach, asserting legislators have not consulted them before proposing the bills.
However, Russell, an independent, added that in his view, “the GOP has put up with the Democrats forcing legislation for 200 years. It should be no surprise some things are going to come out of this assembly a little more forceful than it should be, and probably not quite as palatable to Democrats. I just wish we could sit down and say there’s a better way for this sort of legislation to be drafted, and a little bipartisan help would be good.”
— David Forbes, senior news reporter