No funeral bells rang out during a Feb. 13 forum on the future of the Asheville water system hosted by the local League of Women Voters. But a hand-bell choir practicing in an adjacent room at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church lent the event a solemn tone, underscoring the concerns voiced by many residents.
More than 200 people attended the forum, held in preparation for a Feb. 23 appearance by the state Legislature’s Metropolitan Sewerage/Water System Committee.
Established last year, the study committee (which is chaired by Rep. Tim Moffitt of Buncombe County) will hold an all-day public hearing at the WNC Agricultural Center (see sidebar, “Hear Me Talkin’ to You”). At that meeting, the public will be able to offer comments to committee members, forum moderator Nelda Holder emphasized.
The committee is charged with making a recommendation to the General Assembly concerning who should control Asheville’s water system. “Your opinions belong at the meeting on the 23rd,” Holder explained. Nonetheless, both opinions and fears were abundant at the forum.
Co-sponsored by Mountain Xpress and The Urban News, the event kicked off with five-minute presentations by each of five panelists: Rep. Chuck McGrady, former Buncombe County Commissioner Gene Rainey, Asheville Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer, Metropolitan Sewerage District board Chair Steve Aceto and environmental consultant Ted Volskay.
McGrady, a study committee member, is a former Henderson County commissioner. “There are very hard feelings between Henderson County and the city of Asheville, and no great desire to be a part of a system,” he said. McGrady also served on the now-defunct Regional Water Authority board.
Rainey, however, said he hoped Henderson County could “forgive Asheville its sins” and become part of a new regional water authority. Calling water “liquid gold,” Rainey said it offers both Asheville and Western North Carolina opportunities for economic growth.
“I would hope decisions made by a regional authority would be made on business calculations, not on political concerns,” he continued, adding, “We cannot expect the federal government or state government to solve our problems. We must solve them ourselves, and I think we can.”
During the question-and-answer period, Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy drew applause when she said, “We need to make sure this is a local issue and that local people address this issue, not the state.”
“For the record,” she added to further cheers and applause, “I'm in support of the city of Asheville keeping its water system."
Several residents voiced concerns about privatizing the water system. Local activist Barry Summers asked if this was being considered.
“Under the current bonds that are outstanding, it would not be legal, in my opinion, for us to privatize the water system,” McGrady answered.
But that didn’t satisfy Summers, who pressed McGrady for specifics about how the committee defines privatization. With a sigh, McGrady responded, “There has been no discussion of anything related to privatization of any sort, other than in response to questions that we have received from the public.”
Moffitt was unable to attend the forum, but he addressed the privatization rumors in a public statement that Holder read aloud. “As a lifelong resident of this area and city taxpayer, I would never agree to privatize this public asset,” Moffitt wrote. “Consequently, I do not object to and will pursue the creation of legislation ensuring it will remain in public control in perpetuity, thus ending any concern regarding that unfounded accusation.”
The study committee, McGrady explained, is considering three outcomes: letting the city of Asheville continue to manage the water system, creating an independent regional water authority, or merging the water system with MSD to form a regional authority. “I can assure everyone here that I have had no conversations with any of my colleagues about privatization," he repeated.
Who’s representing Asheville?
Kenilworth resident Valerie Hoh wanted to know why Moffitt is the only local representative on the study committee. The five-member committee includes four Republicans — William Brawley (Mecklenburg County), Tom Murry (Wake County), plus Moffitt and McGrady — and Democrat William Brisson (Bladen and Cumberland counties).
McGrady said he thought these representatives were appointed because their districts include large, integrated water-and-sewer systems. McGrady added that he’d asked to serve on the committee because he wanted Henderson County to have a voice.
That prompted another woman to ask if it was too late for Moffitt to appoint Reps. Patsy Keever and Susan Fisher, to give Asheville more of a voice on the committee. The audience applauded, but McGrady said this was unlikely.
Although the forum ran past the scheduled two hours, few people left early. The last speaker, state Sen. Martin Nesbitt of Buncombe County, said, "We have to be careful with how we play with our neighbors." The longtime Democratic lawmaker joked that he never thought he'd agree with conservative former Asheville City Council member Carl Mumpower, who wrote in a recent op-ed piece in the Citizen-Times that the state committee’s saying it was going to study the issue first was like thieves casing a bank before they rob it.
Manheimer, meanwhile, urged residents to remain vigilant. “You need to have an opinion, and then you need to make that opinion known,” she said. “The worst thing that could happen with this is that we say we didn’t participate in the decision-making process.”
— Caitlin Byrd can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 140, or at email@example.com.