State Rep. Tim Moffitt filed legislation May 4 that would seize Asheville’s water system and give it to the Metropolitan Sewerage District — without informing either City Council or MSD beforehand.
Although it doesn’t mention Asheville by name, the bill specifies “a city with a population of over 75,000 … within a county with a population of 200,000 or over.” If approved, the legislation would give the city one year to transfer its entire water system to MSD and bar Asheville from ever operating a water system again.
The Buncombe County Republican called the bill a “starting point” for what he hopes will be a productive process for determining the best way to manage the water system. “It’s designed to drive the discussion,” he said. “Water has been a contentious issue in our area since the Great Depression. And it seems to be an issue that the city of Asheville uses to determine what their forced annexation policy is going to be.”
Vice Mayor Brownie Newman said he, Council member Esther Manheimer and City Manager Gary Jackson met with Moffitt for 30 minutes on May 2, and the legislator didn’t mention the bill.
“It’s baffling,” said Newman. “When people have traveled four hours to see you, to talk about the issues we need to work on, it’s strange to not even mention that there’s going to be a bill to seize a water system that the city has operated for the last 100 years. … It’s frankly pretty outrageous that a legislator would propose such a far-reaching piece of legislation without consulting us.”
Moffitt said he’d drafted the bill but hadn’t planned to introduce it. “But when the city decided to raise the rates on its commercial customers … in this economy … I really felt that was inappropriate timing.”
Moffitt said the meeting with city leaders was informal, and he felt it more appropriate to bring it up during a May 4 discussion with Mayor Bellamy. “We had a nice discussion about it. … We disagree on this issue. And I reassured her that this was not something I was going to jam through.”
Russell, who also serves on the MSD board, said he found out about the bill the night it was filed, via an email from Newman.
“I had no clue, and I don’t think anybody did,” said Russell. “The city’s spent tens of millions of dollars investing in the infrastructure for our Water Department; we’ve done a lot of work over the last seven years to repair it and make good our promise when we took over the authority. To suddenly have it legislatively stripped out from under us without any public or open dialogue is certainly not a process I’m a big fan of.” He added, “If you want to hand it to the MSD, you may want to see if they can handle it in the first place.”
The city regained control of the water system in 2005, after the dissolution of the Regional Water Authority. Shortly afterward, the state passed the Sullivan Acts, sharply restricting what rates Asheville (alone among the state’s cities) can charge, preventing it from using water service to force annexation and limiting how it can spend system revenues (the latter restriction was later relaxed somewhat).
“I simply see no basis for this — there’s been no calls from anyone in the community to do something like this,” noted Newman. “Since  there’s really been no controversy about how the system has been managed.” He added, “We’re going to fight this.”
Moffitt said the legislation’s wording isn't final, and he believes the city should be compensated for its investment in the system; as written, however, the bill makes no such provision.
Moffitt’s bill is the latest proposed state legislation seeking to take assets from a local government, reverse moves it has made or change the way it functions. He’s also proposed bills reversing the city’s 2005 Biltmore Lake annexation and changing (without a local referendum) the way the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners is elected (the House has already approved both those bills).
In addition, Moffitt joined local Democratic Reps. Patsy Keever and Susan Fisher in proposing legislation forcing the city to turn the Asheville Regional Airport over to an independent authority. The Buncombe County commissioners unanimously opposed the electoral changes, and City Council unanimously condemned the airport legislation.
But Russell, an independent, added: “The GOP has put up with the Democrats forcing legislation for 200 years. It should be no surprise some things are going to come out of this assembly a little more forceful than it should be. … I just wish we could sit down and say there’s a better way for this sort of legislation to be drafted: A little bipartisan help would be good.”
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