Taking the plunge

It’s a question of autonomy: Does the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson truly stand on its own?

Board members are inclined to think not: The Authority’s physical assets are owned by the city of Asheville; its paid staff work under the direction of Asheville’s city manager; and its every budget decision is reviewed (and, on occasion, blocked) by Asheville and Buncombe County elected officials.

Check out the city’s Web page for the Water Resources Department — under which all paid staff work — and you’ll find few references to the Authority, much less a separate page that would detail its meetings, activities and responsibilities.

But that’s not the rub. This is: Because the Authority is not a truly autonomous Authority, like the local Metropolitan Sewerage District, it’s considered a “joint” agency under North Carolina general statutes — which is a costly difference when it comes to the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

“When [DOT] takes our lines and moves them, we have to pay for it,” Authority chair Jack Tate told members of Citizens for Safe Drinking Water and Air on Feb. 14. He explained that when water lines must be relocated for state roadway projects, they’re called “nonbetterment costs,” and DOT expects the Authority to pay — because, under state law, it’s not a real authority.

No other water or sewer agency in the state must pay those costs, which are approaching $1 million a year for the Authority.

The push for an autonomous agency

“In my opinion, that money would be better spent fixing our water lines,” remarked Tate, a Henderson County appointee to the board. He and other Authority members hold out little hope that local legislators’ annual attempt to exempt the Authority from nonbetterment costs will bear fruit: “Because of the strength of the DOT lobby [in Raleigh], we are quite pessimistic about the possibility of obtaining an exemption from [nonbetterment costs],” Tate wrote to Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson officials on Jan. 25.

To date, Authority board members have received no formal reply from those officials, although Mayor Leni Sitnick has asked staff to schedule a Council review of the water agreement. So, at their Feb. 20 meeting, Authority members proposed a new tactic: Reorganize the agency under General Statute 162A, which provides for the creation of autonomous agencies such as the MSD. Such a move would exempt the Authority from DOT nonbetterment costs.

At that meeting, at-large board member Leslee Thornton moved that the Authority draft a proposal for the reorganization and submit it to officials of the three governmental bodies involved. Fellow board member Bill Moyer, who’s also chairman of the Henderson County Board of Commissioners, seconded her motion.

Board member Tommy Sellers, a city appointee, said that he favors “studying [the proposal] and getting it on the table.”

In response, Tate asked, “Do we study it or decide it’s time we made a decision?”

And Thornton emphasized that she proposed making an actual recommendation, not merely studying the issue.

Board member Tom Sobol (a Buncombe County appointee), while voicing his support for her motion, raised a key point: “We’re dancing around it, but the big question is, how do we treat the assets?” Currently, the city of Asheville owns them all — water lines, reservoirs and treatment plants. A reorganized Authority could lease the physical assets or perhaps arrange to purchase them over some period of time, Sobol suggested.

And there’s another complication that also looms large, especially considering the budget cutbacks all local governments are facing as a result of the state’s aniticipated $1 billion shortfall, which prompted Buncombe officials to layoff workers and cut projects recently: Under the current arrangement, the Authority gives 5 percent of its gross revenues to the city of Asheville and 2.5 percent to Buncombe County. That comes to about $1 million for the city, and about $500,000 for the county. Neither local government is likely to be eager to lose that revenue.

At that point, Thornton revised her motion, specifying that the Authority’s proposal must address the financial aspects of reorganizing under G.S. 162A. And the Authority’s Policies and Priorities Committee would name a subcommittee (composed of members) that would produce an initial draft; Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson counties would all be represented on the subcommittee, Thornton recommended.

The motion passed 7-0 (board members Gary Semlak and Vonna Cloninger were absent on Feb. 20).

CSDWA co-founder Jeff Fobes said of the reorganization proposal, “We’re talking a minor insurrection here.”

Deep water

Swirling around the push for reorganization push are several other issues, some dating back to the Great Depression.

At that time, a near-bankrupt city of Asheville used water revenues to help pay its general operating expenses, Authority member Gary Semlak told CSDWA members on Feb. 14.

That practice continued for many years, resulting in a neglect of basic water-line maintenance improvements — a decidedly shortsighted approach, CSDWA member Keith Thompson observed.

Fast-forward to 1981, when the city entered into a cooperative venture with Buncombe County, creating the Asheville-Buncombe Water Authority. Under that agreement, the city retained ownership of the system’s physical assets, such as the North Fork Reservoir and the surrounding 20,000-acre watershed. Henderson County came on board in 1994, when the Authority determined it needed the Mills River in that county for a new water source.

Take the combined 7.5 percent of revenues that Asheville and Buncombe get, add the Authority’s debt service and the DOT nonbetterment costs, and the Authority is paying out 43 percent of its revenues, off the top, Semlak estimated. “What’s left [is for] improvements. … You’ve all these water lines to repair and not enough money to do it,” he said.

“What do we do?” Tate asked, rhetorically.

He drew attention to what he called “the spirit of the regional water agreement,” which calls for a “good faith” effort on the part of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson leaders to create a truly regional authority that includes other local governments. The document also requires: “At the time that the Regional Authority is created, all assets and improvements accumulated pursuant to this Agreement shall be transferred to such Regional Authority upon such terms and conditions as are then mutually acceptable.”

Tate emphasized these points in his Jan. 25 letter to Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson officials. “What is it that these three [governmental] bodies have done [to fulfill the water agreement]? The time has come for these issues to be addressed,” he told CSDWA members at their Feb. 14 meeting.

The question of the Authority’s status is particularly pressing now, because the Henderson County Board of Commissioners recently made its first request for a water-line extension (into the Cane Creek area), Tate reported. And, due to what he called the “murkiness” of the water agreement, many key points are left unclear, including how the Authority is supposed to address such requests, who should pay for line extensions and who would own the line once it’s built.

“How would you take the murkiness out?” asked CSDWA member Monroe Gilmour.

“The city and [Buncombe County] would have to let go of this thing a little bit,” said former Authority member Rick Maas.

Thornton conceded that she understands the city’s point of view: “If you own a rental house, you want to make money off it.” But to move forward with the Authority’s mission, deal with DOT nonbetterment costs, and create a truly regional, autonomous authority, she suggested, “We’ve got to ensure each entity gets the revenue they’re getting now … and maybe wean them of it.”

Tate concluded, “I’m just hoping for dialogue toward solving this issue … in the spirit of the [regional] water agreement.”

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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