What to do with our water system? An interview with North Carolina Rep. Tim Moffitt

On Jan. 11, Xpress Contributing Editor Nelda Holder sat down with Rep. Tim Moffitt and talked with him about Study Bill 925, which created a Statehouse committee charged with reviewing and, perhaps, determining the future of the Asheville water system.  The committee, chaired by Moffitt, holds its first official meeting on Jan. 23 in Raleigh. In February, the committee will hold a public meeting in the Asheville area.

Here’s the full transcript:

Nelda Holder, contributing editor, Mountain Xpress: I’m here to put before the public the process for Study Bill 925. Would you like to give me some introductory remarks about how it came into being?
Rep. Tim Moffitt: For me, some of the main things I’ve focused on once I got elected were any issues regarding forced annexation, and my feelings are that forced annexation is a dated policy that – albeit it was probably appropriate at some time in history but it has long outlived its usefulness. And certainly, in the interest of public policy, I don’t think it’s good policy to take someone’s property without them having a voice in that process. Interestingly enough, in regards to Asheville’s annexation policy, one of the arguments that I constantly heard over the years is the fact that they justified their need for annexation simply because, due to not being able to charge differential water rates to water customers outside the corporate boundary of the city, they did not have the tools in their tool box that would encourage people to be voluntarily annexed, and in order for them to grow they had to resort to involuntary annexation.

But I have some basic knowledge of history of the water system — that’s the primary reason for the study, because I would like to have as much knowledge as I can because I am not interested in taking anything from anyone. My comment a week or so ago regarding the chances that the city would lose the water as being 50-50 was probably not—what I meant to say, what I was asked was what were the chances that the city would lose control of the water, and to me it’s neutral. 50-50 is kind of a neutral answer or neutral proposition, because I can’t forecast what the outcome of the study is going to be because I don’t have all the facts. I’m very interested in understanding the Sullivan Acts. I’m very interested in understanding to what extent the city taxpayers have funded the construct and maintenance of the system. I’m very interested in to what extent the county taxpayers have done the same. I’m equally as interested in understanding to what extent private developers and private industry have spent in regards to extending water lines and putting in basic infrastructure only to turn over ownership of those to the water system itself. And as someone who’s been born and raised here, and who has pretty much been on the municipal water system most of my life, I have written checks to the city of Asheville, to Asheville-Buncombe Water Authority, to the Regional Water Authority – and regardless of whom I write the check to, I still have very good quality water. That is something that we need to be thankful for and cherish as a valuable resource in our community. And that’s my viewpoint.

The introductory bill that was filed, which had different wording from the study bill, could you explain the difference in how the wording got changed?
Certainly. That was probably an awkward moment for a new legislator. One of the things that you learn as someone new to a legislative process is there are calendars that you have to follow.  There are timeframes that you have to work within. And regardless of how important you feel your legislation is, there are 119 other people who feel equally the same about how important their legislation is and there’s only so much time that staff has – and our staff in Raleigh is extremely professional, they’re very accommodating, they put in long hours, and they do a very good job.

So this particular bill was drafted early on just because I wanted to get something out there just to kind of have – I wasn’t sure what I was going to do; I was really more focused on resolving the annexation laws of the state, and if that went well then I was just going to move forward. But one of the things that stood out close to the end of the calendar was that there was an increase in the water rates on business and on the residents of the water system, and that kind of brought the whole water issue back up. So I had this bill that was laying there, and after a meeting with the mayor and the city attorney, Bob Oast, it just happened to be on the same day that our calendar ran out – I went ahead and filed that bill simply as a placehold. I just really wanted to anchor a spot so we had time to change the language, draft the study bill, and move this into the public venue, which is really the study. We really want to get all the facts out.

I don’t think it’s good to have the city of Asheville and the county of Buncombe spending hundreds of thousands of dollars against each other in taxpayers’ funds from a legal standpoint to debate the issue, because quite honestly we are all interlinked together. The city of Asheville is interlinked with Buncombe, Buncombe is interlinked with the city of Asheville, and quite honestly all of the region is interlinked with the two of us. So this is not a city issue, this is not a county issue, this is kind of a regional issue. And if you understand the history of the water system, when we had the Regional Water Authority, it was the city of Asheville, county of Buncombe, county of Henderson. That’s the reason we have the Mills River Water Treatment Facility right now in Henderson County. So it’s really a regional issue. Because there’s no question that the city is the jewel of the West, and those of us that live in the county just really want the fairest outcome. Because what we really want is safe drinking water, quality drinking water, and a fair rate. What we don’t want is to be made to feel as if, for some reason, we are unfair, unfairly … how’s a good way to say it? The people in the city feel as if folks in the country that are on the water system are for some reason – that they are subsidizing county residents. When in fact the county residents that are on the water system have been subsidizing the city taxpayers. And that goes back to the water agreement, where the percentage of water revenues taken out of the water for the city were 5 percent, and when the city cancelled the water agreement – those percentages went away and it cancelled that agreement. So that was a very expensive proposition to the city, and some estimates are that was nearly $3 million a year taken out of the coffers when the city decided to back out of the water agreement.

First and foremost I think from a practical standpoint, what’s important? Important is the quality of water, the safety of the water, and the integrity of the delivery system from an infrastructure standpoint, and the cost. To me what was secondary is management of the system, simply because we’ve had many different models over the years and they all seemed to work. What didn’t work was the politics of it. And that’s where it kind of has breakdown. And so I don’t think it’s good from a policy standpoint to have cities and counties fighting each other over something that I consider a basic need of the folks. And hopefully through this process we will have the facts come to the surface to where the decisions that can be made from those facts will be responsible, practical decisions that everyone can agree with.

How did MSD get into the original draft?
The county of Buncombe, a number of years ago, had basically stated that they felt and that the most appropriate next step for the water system was to combine it with MSD. MSD seemed to be working fine as a regional authority. It took the animosity out from in between the city and the county, and allowed for the delivery [to the customer]. So that particular model had been discussed before.

Was that before or after the regional authority?
If I’m not mistaken, that was only – I’m glad you mentioned that. I just happen to have … the 1995 Water Agreement. And one area I think that is interesting to read is … Section 21: “It is the intention of the parties to establish herein the basis for the foundation of a regional water and/or sewer authority which would at a minimum include as members Henderson and Buncombe counties, the Authority, and Asheville. Pursuant to that attempt, the parties shall attempt and in good faith work toward the creation of a regional authority, and the promotion of said authority to other units of local government in the western part of North Carolina. At the time that the regional authority is created, all assets and improvements accummulated pursuant to this agreement shall be transferred to such regional authority on such terms and conditions as are then mutually acceptable.” Signed off by the City of Asheville, the County of Buncombe, and Henderson.

You would think that what I’m doing is something complete new. It’s not! If you go over the history – this has been conversation over and over and over, and I think ultimately it’s more of an issue between the way the city feels about it and the way the county feels about it. And I think, you know the city is on record as saying that having control of the water allows them to control growth, allows them to control industry, and gives them a lot of centralized control over things that would be in the county. And I feel that if you are so inclined to want to have that type of control, then I would encourage members of city council to run for county commissioner. Because they would have that voice county-wide, versus just within the city … .

That gets us to your original bill, and then we change it to a study bill. Can you describe how you are formulating your study?
Well, it’s funny – as I have told many people—that I’ve only been practicing law without a license for only a year and a half. And so when it comes to drafting legislation, that’s done by the lawyers employed by the General Assembly, who are very, very good. And particularly the director of bill drafting, who’s a gentleman by the name of Jerry Cohen who I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for, and he is very well versed in the Sullivan Acts, he’s very well aware of the local issue with the county of Buncombe and city of Asheville regarding the water and also inclusive of Henderson County. So when it came time to draft – when I filed the bill, I was actually talking to Jerry on the floor when I was filing the bill and I said “We’ve got to get this done,” and he said, “What do you want to include?” and I said “That’s what I’m asking you.” And he said, “Well we need to include this and this and this and this,” and I said, “Yeah, absolutely,” and so he started drafting the study bill. And even when you look at what is contained in the study bill, the amount of information is immense. It’s an immense amount of information. Even if you just look at the lawsuits alone between the city and the county for the Sullivan Acts you’re talking about over eleven hundred pages of legal documents alone that had to be sorted through. So you start talking about the actual ownership – who spent what, when was it spent, and how was it spent? Was it truly water revenues that went to it or was it tax money? Over the course of time that the city was allowed to take money from the water revenues, does that offset the amount of money that the taxpayers spent? I mean, these are all legitimate questions.

I think from my standpoint, I would just like us to be able to recognize that the city represents the heart of the region, the county is the foundation, they both have separate roles to play, we’re all connected to the same water system – let’s respect the roles that we have to play, but let’s not use the water system as a way to leverage advantage over one side or the other. I think that’s inappropriate. I don’t think it’s really the role of government. I think it’s our role to provide the water; I don’t think it’s our role to politicize it.

So the study committee has a certain format that it follows, which includes only four meetings, correct?
Well, because it’s a legislative research commission committee you are limited by rule to only four meetings.

Okay – how do you do all that in four meetings?
Well, I’ll let you know if we live [through] the fourth meeting.

And have you got those scheduled yet?
We have the first one scheduled. The first one kicks off on Monday, January 23, at 2 o’clock. We’ve just about got the agenda complete for that meeting. I’ll share that with you before you leave. I’m just waiting on a couple of other commitments on people I’d like to have speak there. Our second meeting I think is going to be, from my standpoint, the most important meeting. I’ve got approval to have that meeting here, so it will be a local meeting. I have told staff and members of the committee to expect anywhere from 8- to 12-hour meeting, and what we’re going to do is we’re going to break – out of respect for people in our community, each section of our community will have a couple of hours where they can come in and speak publically about how they feel about it. So roughly speaking, and this will all be finalized, say two hours for city residents. I want to hear from them. I want to hear where they feel this is going to lead us, and what’s their understanding of the history, and where would they like to see it go. Same for county of Buncombe. Same for county of Henderson — they have a stake in it too. But I also want to hear from the business community. I think sometimes the business community has felt … has been frustrated with the water issue. And I want to hear what’s reasonable to them. I’d like to find out what about industry that’s no longer here. How much of the water issue was instrumental in their not being here. So those are real facts.

And then an additional two hours to finish up some history that we may not be able to cover in Raleigh with folks that may not be able to make the trip. So it’s going to be a long day – I think it’s a meaningful day, and I want this to be a very, very transparent and open process. Because my interest is simple – and I really don’t have any complicated interests. My interest is simply to continue to deliver the water in the same quality that it is, but to take the fractured relationships that have developed around the whole water issue and mend those so we can really move forward in more meaningful ways from an economic development standpoint, and really look more regionally at the things we need to do. I think one of those which was really great to be instrumental in was our approach to the breweries. I marshalled through the Legislature to amend our ABC laws. That was a great regional effort. It was somethingn that, when I look back on it, that’s the way it should work. You had well-defined obstacles, you have well-defined solutions to overcome those obstacles, you work with all the interested parties and get them in support, and then you marshall it through. And at the end of that process, out of all the things that I’d done last year, that one to me is the most fulfilling, because it is the most meaningful.

Which bill was that?
That was House Bill 796.

What’s been your conversation or contact with Henderson County in this process?
Well, Rep. Chuck McGrady is on the committee with me; I have – I took a tour of the Hendersonville water treatment facility, the Asheville water treatment facility there in Mills River. Also I met with officials from Henderson County and the city of Hendersonville. And for them it’s really a Henderson County issue, because Hendersonville city has their own water system. And we cover everything from the water issue to the sewerage issue because of the Cane Creek sewer and MSD. … We had set aside this Friday to do the same thing with the city of Asheville, and that is, I will meet with Steve Shoaf, Gary Jackson, and we’ll go up to the North Fork Reservoir and maybe look at Bee Tree, and really get a good, basic view of everything – have an appreciation for it because this is so important that I don’t think it would be fair to not spend the time to explore all those in person and have those meeting. Hopefully we’ll do it this Friday … .

We being you ….
And Chuck McGrady. Chuck has a great history and understanding of the water system and its history because of his involvement with the county commission in Henderson County, and he has such a great mind that he coordinated the meetings out there, he knows all the players, he’s been very instrumental in helping pull that together.

And what is your point of contact right now with the city of Asheville?
Sadly, we don’t have enough contact with them, and most of the contact I have is ironically through Representative McGrady. I did …  this you may or may not be aware of – Vice Mayor Manheimer who used to work in the General Assembly and when the staff was put together for this LRC committee – it’s really an all-star staff. Jerry Cohen is on the staff, which is just amazing. But I did indicate to them that out of respect for Vice Mayor Manheimer that they could have free access – that they didn’t necessarily have to go through me. That if there were any personal meetings, I wanted to be notified of those or participate in those. But as far as the sharing of information, there is no agenda here other than what I’ve stated. And that’s kind of get through the history, get it all to the surface, retire some of the urban legends – retire some of the things that maybe there’s some truth but not totally true. Just put all that out. Is it possible? … Can we do it in four meetings? Well it’s four official meetings. There’s a lot of work going on right now. We spent – the reason the meeting’s now on the 23rd is we’ve been working on the history for three months. So that’s a lot of work just to get through that. And we had hopes of working some eastern part of the state sanitary district issues into this LRC, and that was the reason we left it open for other things. And once we started wading into the vast amount of data on this history it was impractical to do it. I’ve actually met with Sen. Clodfelter, Rep. Moore in Hamilton on their bill on the sanitary districts because I think what they wanted to accomplish is needed. And I wanted to involve that study into our committee.

,b>What’s the crux of what you were looking at?
Apparently the sanitary districts out east, there are some real questions regarding management of those, impact fees, control of development, things like that. And within the general statute book – it’s not all consolidated within one section. So we really kind of took a broad look at all that and we designed the statutes if you will to where it paints a truer picture of the sanitary districts and the way they should operate and how they conduct business — and that was what they were attempting, which was very appropriate, and I was hoping we could do that with them.

I want to go back to the communication or non-communication (with the city). … Esther and Jan were appointed liaison. How are they “liaisoning”?
Well, Esther is “liaisoning” with the staff in Raleigh. They’ve made me aware of that and that’s fine. Jan – I’ve talked to Jan. Jan’s liaisoned with me. I’ve known Jan a very long time and he’s a great guy. …  Esther will be testifying in that first meeting and … I think that because of her experience in Raleigh, she understands everything. She gets it. She knows right now the staff is working furiously behind the scenes to get all the facts put together for a cohesive presentation that they will give, and then she will put in for the city’s part, and then I’ll have the folks from MSD put in their part, folks from the county put in their part. This is just really fact finding. So she understands that. But the real crux of what the committee will be taking up will probably be starting in the third meeting, and moving to the fourth meeting. The first couple of meetings are really background, discovery, public input, public comment, and then you start getting down to trying to put solutions on paper that everyone can agree to.

When are you supposed to wind up? Is there a deadline?
Yeah, for LRC committees, if I’m not mistaken, we have to report out by the end of April. And for our standing committees, we have to report out by the end of May.

So how can people stay in touch with what’s happening with the committee?
Well I went ahead and purchased a URL, I think I’ve mentioned before. It’s avh20.com. The LRC committe’s going to have its website regarding this, so I’ll probably just make that a hot link with that particular website. Everything that we come up with in this, once it’s presented in committee, we get things loaded into the site. … A lot of it will be in electronic form so it may be quicker, but I would rather underpromise than [overpromise].

Are the meetings recorded? How are people who can’t go to Raleigh have access?
I believe – and I need to verify that but I believe that every one of our meetings are on live and you can listen to it.

And they are then archived?
Yes.

And people who want to have something to say aside from when you have the public meeting in Asheville – what kind of access is there to communicate with you?
Well they can certainly send written comments to my legislative email addresss, which is Tim.Moffitt@ncleg.net. I will take all those comments and push those out to the other members of the committee as well as staff so they can be part of the record. I would encourage them to stay in contact with Vice Mayor Manheimer and Councilman Davis and communicate with them, because they will forward information to me as well. To me, every voice needs to be heard from. Practically speaking I’m not sure if we have time to do all that in person, but anyone who has a comment or anything, I welcome it. I’d like to hear from everyone. I’ve heard from a lot of people so far. There was some concern because of my involvement with the committee on public-private partnerships that there was a covert attempt to privatize our water and sell it out to some corporation. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve talked with a number of people about that, and I’ve assured them that that’s never been a thought on my part. The presentations that we’ve had are typically presentations that are given to our committees to really kind of bring us up to speed, and those presentations have been given to other committees prior, so there’s no veiled attempt to get something under the radar.

And when you get to the end of the four meetings, what happens?
I’m not sure. This is my first rodeo. This is a very important topic. I mean, at the very end we may report out that this is such a vast issue that we recommend a continuance in a secondary LRC format, which would give us – upon approval of the LRC chairs, which would be Speaker Tillis and President Pro Tem Berger —an opportunity to continue. We could report out, given the preponderance of the history thus far, that things remain status quo. Or we could revisit the city’s and county’s previous attempt of establishing an independent regional authority. And I think all those issues are out there. There are lots of models out there. I have no interest in affecting the city’s asset base or their balance sheet at all. I think that when we come to the reservoir, if it’s really owned by the city and an independent authority is the outcome, then it could be on a lease to an independent authority where compensation would absolutely be paid to the city. To me it’s just important that we take something that’s so important to all of us – not just city residents, but all of us – and do what’s in everyone’s best interest, not just a group of people.

And what is in process?
As far as the second meeting, I’ve actually asked my committee … we got approval for staff for two days and two nights, because it’s going to be such a long day. But in order to pull that off, what you have to do is you have to pull up the big February calendar, and you have to mark where everybody’s going to be. Then you find out where they’re available, and then you select those days. And once we select those dates, then I’ll be selecting the location.

Do you have any idea of when you’re going to know those dates?
I think Lisa sent me a proposed calendar earlier – I hope that I’ll know that so I can report that out at the January 23 meeting.

And can you foresee down the line undoings of the Sullivan Acts? How would that happen?
The Sullivan Acts will remain intact. I think the Sullivan Acts really sanctify an agreement that the city made with the county at a very important time in our history. I really don’t think there’s any reason that justifies undoing the Sullivan Acts. So this particular study committee will not affect the Sullivan Acts nor address the Sullivan Acts. We’ll be learning about them and the role that they have, because it is an unusual circumstance. But the delivery of water and sewer throughout our state – there’s so many variations. I was quite surprised. I’m born and raised here; this is all I’ve ever known. I’ve only known municipal water. But this is kind of a mishmash of ways to deliver these services.

What were some of your biggest surprises?
I was surprised at how many private water systems that were out there. To me that doesn’t feel right. Because to me there are core functions of government, and I think public safety, water and sewer to me make the most sense as far as core functions of government. I could get into some very healthy debates with you on management of aquariums or museums or civic centers, economic development – should economic development be a public thing or should it be privatized? There’s models out there that – in Indiana – that show there seems to be quite a bit more success. But when it comes to those types of things, to me it doesn’t feel right. And I’ve talked to other legislators and I’ve talked to staff. And there was one community that’s got three private water companies – that’s like having three trash [companies]. To me that’s just weird. But I also recognize that especially in some of our more rural areas, that those private water companies were the only way that they would ever have a water delivery service. Now these were private individuals that invested private dollars into establishing that system and building that infrastructure. So to me that makes sense – that’s just what they know. It’s just not what I know. And they may feel may feel equally as odd about having something like that provided by the city. There was something I thought was interesting – ElectriCities. You ever heard of ElectriCities? City-owned power companies. That doesn’t feel right. So to one extreme, private water didn’t feel right to me, to the other extreme, government-owned utilities doesn’t feel right. Arguably, people could say utilities act like governments anyway, but … it just goes to show there is no cookie-cutter approach. That each approach is unique to the characteristics and to the folks in that area. And I think that by and large that’s probably the best way.

Anything else you want to say about the process or the issue?
No, I think it’s just again – to me – it’s just a real yearning to resolve a longstanding dispute in our region. And hopefully at the end of this we’ll have some success. But I don’t underestimate its difficulty and I certainly understand the concerns and apprehensions that people have. But the only way that I can address that is by being as accessible and open and transparent through the process as I intend to be, and respond to all inquiries and questions candidly.

SHARE
About Margaret Williams
Managing Editor Margaret Williams has been at Xpress since 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987.

4 thoughts on “What to do with our water system? An interview with North Carolina Rep. Tim Moffitt

  1. james

    I work in the trade so to speak. The city residents need to get off their butts and put a stop to this privatation or your water bills will increase quite a bit to cover providing water to the gated enclaves in the county who pay no city tax to cover line maintenance,pumping costs,ect.
    Just do some reasearch into citys that have privatived their systems and see how much the rates had to go up.

  2. brebro

    “I’ve heard from a lot of people so far. There was some concern because of my involvement with the committee on public-private partnerships that there was a covert attempt to privatize our water and sell it out to some corporation. Nothing could be further than the truth. ”

    Nothing could further THAN the truth? Was Tim misquoted here or was that a Freudian slip?

Leave a Reply