About seven years ago, the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson County fell apart. The creation of what had been an historic agreement involving the three governments, ongoing disputes and frustrations led Asheville officials to end the partnership in 2005. Fast-forward to the March 28 filing of House Bill 488, which transfers the Asheville water system to the Metropolitan Sewerage District. North Carolina Reps. Tim Moffitt, Nathan Ramsey and Chuck McGrady co-sponsored the bill, although — as requested last year — the city and MSD have engaged in good-faith but difficult discussions about a possible merger.
Ramsey, a former Buncombe commissioner and chair, ties HB 488 to the collapse of the water authority. He hopes for a regional approach to water service and Council’s approval of plans for widening Interstate 26 through Asheville.
Asheville City Council member Marc Hunt counters that legislators’ attitude and approach amount to expecting the city “to negotiate with a gun to [its] head.”
Ramsey says, “Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like [this issue is] ever going to be solved at the local level. … cognizant that the city contends over the last two years everything’s been great and there’s no problem. But the context isn’t what’s happened in the last two years” — it’s the longer-lasting disputes that led to the end of the water authority in 2005.
While Ramsey says he understands the city did what it thought best at the time, “we’ve [gone] off-track since then. This bill is an attempt to get us back to what the original intent of our community leaders was and do it in the way that all of our water and sewer [dollars] stay in the system.”
He adds, “The governance changes, but from the customer standpoint nothing changes.”
Hunt counters, saying the legislation “is toward the worse end of what could’ve come.” The bill puts forth no compensation for the city, but gives it three appointees to a new board (Buncombe and Henderson also get three each). The impact on Asheville’s general fund budget is especially disturbing,” says Hunt. “There’s yet to be any effort to hold the Asheville taxpayer harmless.”
If the bill passes, Hunt predicts that the city will face a choice between a severe reduction in services or a sharp tax hike. The city, he adds, will evaluate “all its options, politically and legally.”
Last year, a study commission chaired by Moffitt concluded that the city’s system should be transferred to MSD, but the commission said it wouldn’t proceed with legislation if “good faith negotiations" between MSD and the city took place. Since then, MSD and the city of Asheville have exchanged information and each hired consultants, but have reached no clear conclusions.
Ramsey says, “There was never really a willingness to sit down and say ‘how can we do this in a better way’ and for that I think we lost an opportunity. … We’ve had a year to work through this in a more convenient way.”
Hunt says the city has worked with MSD, but believes Asheville representatives couldn’t negotiate an outcome that most of its voters wouldn’t accept. He adds, “The legislature was determined to see this happen [and] because it’s a bad idea, the people of Asheville will continue to resist it, and there’s plenty of indication others across the state will continue to too.”
Ramsey says Asheville officials have a legitimate point about the loss of revenues a merger creates. He also mentions that he’d like to see Council members adopt a resolution on a plan for Interstate 26 and work with the state on changes to the Regional Airport Authority. “If they do those things, we’ll concede there’s some good faith out there and try to come to a better place,” he says. I’m willing to sit down with the city’s representatives, the county — that’s my commitment. It’s not my intention to harm the city financially.”
Hunt noted that while he appreciated a recent bill proposed by Ramsey and Moffitt allowing the city and county to form a joint parks-and-recreation authority, “Given the circumstances of what is being forced, it’s hard for a person in my seat to consider that there’s any negotiation at all here. … It’s a fair question if our neighbors across the region want to see Asheville decline.”
Moffitt was unavailable for comment, but released a statement on his website, nchouse116.com, defending the bill.
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or firstname.lastname@example.org.