The future of Asheville's water system will be on the table when a legislative study committee holds its first meeting Jan. 23 in Raleigh. Chaired by Rep. Tim Moffitt, a first-term Buncombe County Republican, the Metropolitan Sewerage/Water System Committee is delving into the politically troubled history of the city-owned system and considering potential changes.
Moffitt’s initial proposal last spring sparked considerable controversy; in the following excerpts from an extensive Jan. 11 interview, Moffitt discusses the impetus for proposing the study and the process the committee will follow. The full transcript is available online at http://avl.mx/92.
Mountain Xpress: I'm here to put before the public the process for study bill HB 925. Would you like to give me some introductory remarks about how it came into being?
Tim Moffitt: Some of the main things I've focused on once I got elected were any issues regarding forced annexation. I constantly heard over the years that [Asheville] 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 … that would encourage people to be voluntarily annexed. … 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. … I'm very interested in understanding the Sullivan Acts [and] to what extent the city taxpayers have funded the construction and maintenance of the system, [and] to what extent the county taxpayers have done the same. I'm equally as interested in understanding what 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.
The introductory bill that was filed had different wording from the study bill. Could you explain … how the wording got changed?
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. … I just really wanted to anchor a spot [by the deadline] so we had time to change the language, draft the study bill and move this into the [public] venue.
How did MSD get into the original draft?
The county of Buncombe, a number of years ago, had basically stated that they felt the most appropriate next step for the water system was to combine it with [the Metropolitan Sewerage District]. 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.
Can you describe how you are formulating your study?
We have the first [meeting] scheduled [for] Jan. 23 at 2 o'clock. Our second meeting [in February] 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 … anywhere from eight to 12 hours. Each section of our community will have a couple of hours where they can come in and speak publicly about how they feel about it … say two hours for city residents [and] 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 counties [Buncombe and Henderson]. They have a stake in it too. But I also want to hear from the business community, [which] I think sometimes has been frustrated with the water issue. … 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.
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 Rep. [Chuck] McGrady [of Henderson County]. But I did indicate to them that out of respect for Vice Mayor [Esther] Manheimer [who was appointed city liaison, along with Council member Jan Davis], they could have free access [to staff] — that they didn't necessarily have to go through me. … Esther will be testifying in that first meeting [in Raleigh].
When are you supposed to wind up? Is there a deadline?
If I'm not mistaken, we have to report out by the end of April.
So how can people stay in touch with what's happening with the committee?
I purchased a URL: avh2o.com. The committee'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.
Are the meetings recorded? How will people who can't go to Raleigh have access?
I believe that every one of our meetings is on live and you can listen to it [live or archived].
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?
They can certainly send written comments to my legislative email address, 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. … 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. … The presentations that [the committee] has had are typically presentations that are given to … 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. At the very end we may report out that this is such a vast issue that we recommend a continuance in a secondary [Legislative Research Commission] format. … 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.
— Freelance writer Nelda Holder can be reached at email@example.com.