Postcards to the edge

Though far from unanimity, a consensus was clear. At Buncombe County’s March 14 public forum on the future of the water system, most speakers supported the county’s call for a regional water authority and voiced opposition to higher rates for water customers outside the Asheville city limits.

But rather than swaying official opinion in Asheville, the event only heightened a perception on the part of City Council that Buncombe County isn’t playing fair in its public-relations campaign and is treating city residents as second-class county citizens.

At issue was a postcard the county sent out recently to water-system customers — but only those outside the city. “Will Your Water Rates Increase?” it asked in block letters on the front of the card, which listed “Office of the County Manager” as the return address. The back of the card repeated the question and then added a second: “Want to learn how pending changes will impact you?” The reference, of course, was to Asheville’s plans to take control of the local water system by dissolving its Water Agreement with Buncombe County (and, by extension, the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson). The card invited recipients to attend the county’s water forum and directed readers to the county’s Web site for details.

On March 10, four days before the forum, Asheville Mayor Charles Worley wrote to the county commissioners, complaining generally about county “mudslinging” and specifically about these postcards and similar leaflets distributed at county schools. The county, Worley noted, had used “taxpayer money from residents inside and outside the city” for the postcards and leaflets “yet … not made any effort to involve city residents, who are also county residents, nor City Council in this ‘public information’ session.”

Buncombe County Commissioner Bill Stanley defended the mailing. “We sent it to those who will be most affected” by the city’s plan to pull out of the agreement, he told Xpress. (Stanley also pointed out that the county had notified the media about the forum and had taken out an advertisement in the Asheville Citizen-Times.)

But in the city’s view, the potential rate differentials affect city residents just as much as outside water users — though more positively, of course, since they would result in Ashevilleans paying a smaller portion of total water-system expenses. And all three City Council members who took a turn at the microphone during the forum — Worley, Holly Jones and Joe Dunn — emphasized that point, arguing that it costs less to provide city residents with water than outside users and that the overwhelming majority of cities in North Carolina charge outsiders more.

“There are more poor working folks in the city than outside,” noted Jones. “We want to get to a better place for those folks.” Worley emphasized that the city has never said anything about doubling water charges to outside residents and is willing to make concessions on several points. And Dunn reassured the commissioners of his personal opposition to using water hookups as an annexation tool.

Butting heads

Most speakers at the forum, however, seemed to see things differently. Ben Pace described the county as a “jilted girlfriend” that has good reason to question whether it can trust the city. In decades past, he charged, Asheville had taken over private water systems when their owners felt they could no longer cope with them, extracting revenue while doing little or no maintenance for years afterward. And Harry Maroni of Fairview noted that many county residents believe the city has been milking the system for years. “People think that money has been stolen,” he said.

Former Buncombe County Commissioner Cary Owen, meanwhile, outlined the history of local water politics all the way back to the 1890s, describing how the city and county had laid the foundation for their recent economic booms by agreeing to work together under the original Water Agreement, signed in 1981. Likewise, former county Planning Director Chuck Tessier called the agreement a “model of cooperation.”

Albert Sneed also stressed the importance of water to economic-development efforts, arguing that “narrow-minded and provincial” views on the city’s part were “setting regionalism back.” Sneed called for establishing an autonomous authority akin to the Metropolitan Sewerage District. Former county Commissioner Jesse Ledbetter sounded a similar note, saying the current Regional Water Authority provides the county with “representation but not much control.”

Ernest Harwig, a utility consultant who lives in the county, was among the many who spoke against rate differentials, arguing that water distribution shouldn’t, in fact, be any more expensive beyond the city line, since that’s where the water-treatment plants are. But rather than supporting an autonomous authority, Harwig urged privatization.

Asheville resident Jan Howard, on the other hand, decried the county’s “excessive bullying” of City Council, and Leslee Kulba (who also lives in the city) argued that Asheville has made a better case for city control and has generally been “more straightforward” in its approach.

County resident Meiling Dai, meanwhile, said she thinks the city and county are getting nowhere by “butting heads” and should try arbitration. If that fails, she suggested that they let the courts and the state legislature sort things out. Asheville resident Donald Lilenfeld, meanwhile, called for a referendum so that citizens could vote to determine the proper course.

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