Buncombe County Commission

“As long as I’ve been here, we’ve been talking about fixing the water lines.”

— Buncombe County Commissioner Patsy Keever

If actions speak louder than words, then nonactions must positively roar.

The Buncombe County commissioners took one such “nonaction” at their May 20 meeting. Rather than approve a fiscal year 2003-04 Regional Water Authority budget that included a new fee for customers, the commissioners declined to even bring the matter up for a vote.

Without the commissioners’ blessing, the budget can’t take effect, since it must be approved by the agency’s own board, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners and the Asheville City Council. (A special meeting of the Water Authority to reconsider the budget will be held at 9 a.m. on June 5 in the Asheville City Hall’s first-floor conference room, Interim Water Resources Director David Hanks told Xpress.)

The Water Authority’s budget, however, was only one item on an agenda packed with weighty matters. Others included:

• a presentation (by county manager Wanda Greene) of the budget for 2003-04 — with the tax rate unchanged;

• legal maneuverings by Waste Management that derailed final approval of a change in how the county disposes of solid waste; and
• approval of two changes to county ordinances designed to regulate hillside development.

CIBO decries proposed water fee

A hint that choppy seas lay ahead for the Water Authority’s budget came during the public-comment portion of the commissioners’ informal work session, held just before the formal session. Council of Independent Business Owners Executive DirectorMike Plemmons reported that his board of directors opposes the Water Authority’s plan to start assessing a new “capital-improvements charge,” fearing that the move might inhibit economic development.

“This fee is just way too open-ended for us, and it’s going to last forever,” Plemmons told the commissioners.

The fee amount would depend on the size of the meter feeding a particular residence or business, ranging from an extra $12 annually for the average residential customer all the way up to an extra $3,600 per year for a customer using the largest size pipe.

During the formal session, Hanks told the board that the $1.2 million projected to be generated annually by the fee would go toward major capital improvements for the system — including replacing old water lines. For the average residential customer, the fee would represent a rate increase of about 4.5 percent, said Hanks. He also named three specific commercial customers — a restaurant, a hotel and another business — that he said would see rate increases ranging from less than 1 percent to 5 percent.

In response to a question from Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey, Hanks reported that the Authority is spending about $765,000 on a comprehensive engineering study — about $300,000 of which is funding a system evaluation to determine which water lines should be replaced first. A consultant recently estimated that it would cost about $1.4 billion to replace the entire system, Hanks told the commissioners — a figure Ramsey asked Hanks to repeat. (It’s billion, with a “b,” Hanks confirmed.)

Hanks also noted that demand is projected to be flat during the coming fiscal year, whereas operating expenses are expected to increase by 3.7 percent.

The commissioners, however, remained unconvinced about the need for the fee increase.

“As long as I’ve been here, we’ve been talking about fixing the water lines,” observed Commissioner Patsy Keever. “We know it’s a very old system, and we know that it went for a long time without any improvements. But it’s feeling like that it’s still not getting a lot of improvement, and this capital-improvement fee is very uncomfortable.”

Hanks countered that the main line from North Fork is now 40 years old. If some of these infrastructure issues aren’t addressed, he warned, Asheville will wake up someday and there won’t be any water — and it will be a long time before the water comes back on.

The Water Authority itself had been divided about the budget, which it approved on a split vote. In fact, Ramsey (who also serves on the Water Authority board) told his fellow commissioners that he’d had to take a break from putting up hay on his farm to break the Water Authority’s 3-3 tie by approving the budget via conference call.

A long discussion ensued, with Commissioner Bill Stanley mostly echoing Keever’s comments about the problem of the aging water lines.

“When are we gonna fix ’em?” demanded Stanley, his voice rising. “We know they’re old and been old for 40 years or whatever. And we’re not fixing ’em. We’re not spending money to fix ’em. I can’t vote for this thing.”

“I agree with you,” Hanks replied. “We haven’t had the money to do that.”

Commissioner David Gantt, meanwhile, recounted the rate increases over the past five years, which he calculated had amounted to a 26.5 percent jump. “I just think that, overall, there’s a total lack of vision and leadership,” Gantt complained, though he insisted he wasn’t “fussing” at Hanks directly.

Ramsey also mentioned a proposal he’d circulated among the commissioners, county staffers and some members of the media calling for the creation of a truly independent water authority.

Asheville City Council member Brian Peterson (another Water Authority board member) also addressed the commissioners, saying the Authority’s structural and political problems ought to be addressed before new fees and rates are implemented.

In the end, however, not even Ramsey proposed approving the Water Authority budget. During a lengthy discussion of the matter, Ramsey said that part of his job on the Authority’s board is to represent the commissioners, and their lack of support for the budget meant that he wouldn’t vote for it, either.

At the meeting’s end, Ramsey resigned from the Water Authority and suggested that Stanley take his place, noting that Stanley had gotten back some free time since he’s no longer serving as interim director of the troubled Swannanoa Valley Youth Development Center, a juvenile jail. The commissioners also appointed Keever to fill the unexpired term of Vonna Cloninger, who had resigned from the Authority’s board back in April.

Sticking with the tax rate

The county’s own budget presentation seemed anti-climatic, in part because a majority of the board — Ramsey, Stanley and Vice Chairman David Young — had told County Manager Wanda Greene at last fall’s budget retreat that they didn’t want a tax-rate increase in fiscal year 2003-04.

The current Buncombe County tax rate, 59 cents per $100 of property value, was set last summer on a split vote supported by Ramsey, Stanley and Young. The rate touched off shock waves among local nonprofit and public-school leaders, who were caught off guard by the budget cuts made in order to support that rate.

Greene presented a general-fund budget of $194 million, a 2.9 percent ($5.5 million) increase over last year. (The non-general operating budgets stand at $37 million.)

Education, human services and public safety represent the top three net costs to the county. Education accounts for 27.5 percent of general-fund spending, Greene told the board. (About half that amount, however, is covered by restricted sales-tax revenues.) The county manager is recommending allocating a total of $53.4 million to the Buncombe County Board of Education, the Asheville City Schools and A-B Tech, representing a $3 million (6 percent) increase over the current fiscal year.

Human services accounts for $70.3 million (36.2 percent) of the county’s general-fund budget. (About 54 percent of the cost is covered by intergovernmental revenues.)

Medicaid costs are projected to rise by another $1 million in the coming fiscal year — which Greene said represents a welcome slowdown in cost increases. In the past two years, Medicaid costs have risen by more than $2 million annually, she reported.

Public safety accounts for $38.4 million (19.7 percent) of the proposed budget, with about 23 percent of that cost covered by user fees, fines and charges to other agencies. The county, noted Greene, is prepared to add three dispatchers to the budget if the Asheville City Council agrees to consolidate the city’s fire-dispatching services with the county’s Emergency Operations Center.

Two budget items generated the most discussion. Young voiced concerns about a proposed cost-of-living increase for county employees that wouldn’t take effect until April 2004. And other commissioners asked questions about the proposed $12 million Public Safety Building, a four-story structure to be built next to the existing Detention Center once the county acquires a parking lot from the city of Asheville.

A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for June 3, immediately following the board’s regularly scheduled meeting. A work session starts at 4 p.m., followed by the formal session at 4:30 p.m. in Room 204 of the Buncombe County Courthouse.

Muddy waters

The commissioners did find one thing they could all agree on — adopting changes aimed at regulating development on hillsides.

County Planner Jim Coman presented two recommendations from the Buncombe County Planning Board.

One change adds hillside-development standards to the county’s subdivision ordinance. Those rules would apply to new subdivisions built on land with an average slope of 15 percent or greater (calculated using the same formula employed by the city of Asheville). That figure, in turn, would determine how many units could be built per acre. Asheville’s rules also correlate with the city’s zoning districts.

Under the county proposal, a subdivision with an average natural slope of 15 percent would be allowed no more than two units per acre (if served by septic tanks) or 12 units per acre (if served by sewers). At the other end of the spectrum, a subdivision with an average natural slope of 65 percent could have no more than one unit per 10 acres (with septic) or one unit per two acres (with sewers).

The rules, aren’t terribly restrictive, Planning Board members noted back in April.

That may explain the lack of reaction from the development community. Both proposals, said Coman, had been vetted by CIBO and the local Homebuilders Association — and he’s heard no comments from either group.

The Planning Board also recommended changing the erosion-control ordinance. Owners of steeply sloping lots as small as a quarter acre would need a permit from the county before commencing activities that could cause soil erosion.

Before the commissioners unanimously approved both amendments, Young mentioned that the biggest complaint he gets is about water and mud draining onto someone’s property from above, and asked whether these rules would address the problem. Coman said they would.

Waste not, want not

Apparently on a roll (or is it “nonroll”?), the commissioners also made another significant decision through inaction.

Although changes to the county’s solid-waste ordinance were scheduled to come up for final approval last week (in the second reading of the ordinance), the board decided to delay that action until June 17.

The decision came after the commissioners received a letter the previous day from attorney Patsy Brison Meldrum of the Asheville law firm of Roberts & Stevens, which is one of the firms representing Waste Management.

According to the letter, Waste Management has “grave concerns” about the changes to the ordinance, which would require waste haulers to dump all solid waste at the Buncombe County landfill.

On a split vote at the board’s May 6 meeting, the commissioners had tentatively approved a plan establishing mandatory franchise permits for commercial and industrial waste haulers, who would be required to take their refuse to the Buncombe County landfill. The plan also clears the way for a partnership with private industry, which would build and operate a recycling facility (for construction-and-demolition waste) and a composting facility (for compostable waste) at the landfill in exchange for collecting tipping fees.

“As you may be aware, Waste Management owns, operates and manages a transfer station in Buncombe County and transports solid waste from that transfer station to its Palmetto Landfill in South Carolina,” Meldrum wrote. “If the County adopts the proposed amendment, it will be attempting to prevent the flow of solid waste into South Carolina and diverting it to Buncombe County. It is our view that the proposed amendment, which purports to regulate the flow of solid waste, runs afoul of the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution.”

During the public-comment period, Meldrum thanked the commissioners for delaying adoption of the ordinance.

“We’re taking another look at this ordinance,” County Attorney Joe Connolly told Xpress at the meeting’s end.

But Greene said after the meeting that the county feels the ordinance meets the requirements of state law.

And Ron Townley (who provides technical assistance on solid-waste issues to local governments through the Land-of-Sky Regional Council) told Xpress later that recent federal case law indicates the county is on good legal footing. In essence, a government acting in the “best public interest” does have the legal right to franchise the commercial waste stream, said Townley.

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