Board resignations spotlight Water Authority woes

Both Vice Chair Gary Semlak and At-Large Member Leslee Thornton cited personal reasons for their sudden resignations from the board of the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson. In the past year, however, both have been outspoken about their frustrations over several pending disagreements between Asheville and Henderson County.

For more than a year, the Authority has been caught in the crossfire stemming from a lawsuit lobbed at the city of Asheville by Henderson County officials over a disputed land swap, and bogged down by a dispute over the cost of providing a water line to north Henderson County. Meanwhile, ongoing budget constraints have left the Authority unable to patch up a water system in desperate need of repairs. And a push to make the Authority a fully autonomous agency has further strained relations with the city (which owns all of the system’s infrastructure).

“There’s a lot of frustrating things going on,” said Semlak following his March 19 resignation, though he emphasized that he resigned “because I’ve had a lot of organizations I belong to, and I had to get rid of something and simplify my life.”

The chair of the Authority’s Policies and Priorities Subcommittee, Semlak was most recently named to represent the Authority on a staff-level committee charged with reviewing a proposed annual loan to Henderson County so it could build its own water lines. The proposal, part of the ongoing negotiations begun last fall among the Authority’s three participating governments, was spurred by a disagreement over Henderson’s request for a new water line — the system’s first outside of Buncombe County — earlier last year. After attending the subcommittee’s first meeting, Semlak says he “realized there was too much to it.”

Although Semlak declined to discuss the details of that meeting, he did express skepticism about the prospects for resolving the fundamental issues dividing the three member governments. “I doubt there will ever be an independent Authority,” he said. To accomplish that, the Authority would have to own the water system infrastructure. But the city of Asheville has been hostile to idea of giving up ownership of assets valued at $100 million by city officials.

Those assets, said Semlak, “help Asheville when it goes to borrow money.”

He also voiced concern about the combined 7.5 percent of water-system revenues the Authority pays to Asheville and Buncombe County. That money, he says, constitutes a sort of hidden tax on water users and “takes away from [the money needed] to replace water lines.”

Semlak also disapproves of the proposed loan from the already cash-strapped Authority to Henderson. “That money would have to come from water [revenues]. … We’d have to raise rates.”

Specifics aside, Semlak observed that “money problems and turf disputes don’t get water lines replaced.”

At-large appointee Leslee Thornton was more circumspect, saying she resigned because of family obligations and the demands of her new real-estate business.

She did make the following points, however. A dispute with developers and property owners sparked by a recent change in the Authority’s master-meter policy could have been avoided, said Thornton, if Water Department staff had done more to consult the affected parties up front while developing a policy that everyone could live with. After a group of businessmen filled the usually empty Authority chambers last month, the Authority did revise its policy.

Thornton also offered this parting shot: “With the state shortchanging the county and city on funds, it’s even more important that we [change] the Authority to [an independent agency].” In its current form, the Authority must make hefty payments (averaging about $1 million per year) to the N.C. Department of Transportation whenever water lines are displaced by road projects; an autonomous Authority wouldn’t have to make those payments. Says Thornton: “That money should stay in our community. We’re losing money every year because of our own stupidity.”

Appointments to the Water Authority board are divided among the various member entities; the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners will decide who replaces Semlak. The local watchdog group Citizens for Safe Drinking Water and Air supports Rick Maas, a UNCA environmental-sciences professor who served on the Authority from 1993-99 and has also served on the Metropolitan Sewerage District board.

Current Authority board members will choose Thornton’s replacement; she has recommended retired real-estate developer Winston Pulliam to fill her seat.

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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