Asheville City Council

“This does not diminish our regional commitment.”

— Mayor Charles Worley on the city’s decision to renegotiate or terminate the Water Agreement

In the aftermath of the Asheville City Council’s May 25 formal session, two things are crystal clear: City leaders are sufficiently fed up with the Water Agreement that they’re prepared to walk away from it, and they want the city, not the Regional Water Authority, to control Asheville’s water system.

Everything else is clear as mud.

On May 25, City Council unanimously authorized Mayor Charles Worley to announce Asheville’s intention to renegotiate or terminate the 1996 Water Agreement. The document requires member governments to give a year’s notice, but the clock is ticking. Three days later, Worley told Xpress that the city has notified both the Water Authority and Buncombe County of Asheville’s intentions.

Proclaiming that it’s time “to regain control of water,” Worley added that the resolution “gives us a one-year time frame for negotiations — and an option down the road if the negotiations aren’t successful.”

And former Council member Brian Peterson, who serves on the Water Authority board, told Xpress after the meeting: “This is one of the biggest decisions this Council’s ever made. Moreover, all seven members are united on this. They are standing shoulder to shoulder, ready to fight Buncombe and Henderson counties and the state legislature in order to reclaim complete control of the water system.” The city owns the water infrastructure, and city staffers operate the system, but the Water Authority sets the rates and authorizes the line extensions.

But the confusion begins with the question of which Water Agreement we’re talking about. City officials are now distinguishing between the 1996 Supplemental Amended Water Agreement (which expanded the existing authority into the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson) and the 1995 Regional Water Supply and Water Service Agreement (which agreed to supply water to Henderson County). Originally hailed as a model of regional cooperation, the <#213>96 document has been a source of controversy and infighting almost since its inception.

Water, however, has been a bitterly contested issue locally at least since the 1930s, when the N.C. General Assembly passed the Sullivan Act. The law specifically prohibits Asheville from charging non-city residents more for water (as most North Carolina cities do).

In an interview with Xpress after the meeting, Mayor Worley said the city “wants to take back control of the water system — set its budget, set the rates, and operate the system as other cities across North Carolina do.”

And during the May 25 public hearing on the resolution, Council member Terry Bellamy decried the current water rates, which she called “some of the highest … in the state. We need to retool [them] and see some relief within the city limits.” In fact, city residents pay exceptionally high rates, while large commercial users in the city pay competitive rates, and large commercial users in the county pay extremely low rates.

Continuing disputes about rates have contributed to the Water Authority’s inability to repair its crumbling water lines.

But any attempt by the city to disengage itself from the Water Agreement will inevitably collide head on with the document’s daunting complexity. In its various avatars, the Water Agreement has embodied an ongoing tit for tat between city and county governments that have frequently been at loggerheads on any number of issues. Accordingly, the “Water Agreement” has included such diverse non-water-related matters as law enforcement, street repairs and an agreement transferring McCormick Field, a golf course and the Aston Park Tennis Center from the city to Buncombe County.

Apparently, all these issues are now up for renegotiation. What’s more, the city now appears ready to contest the Sullivan Act — which the <#213>96 Water Agreement prohibits. “The Sullivan Act applies only within those districts where Asheville took over lines in the 1930s,” Worley told Xpress. “Through annexation, we’ve acquired a lot of those districts. The remainder is a small area in the county. The bottom line is the Sullivan Act is limited in scope. And there are still questions about its constitutionality.”

Another major bone of contention is the portion of the Water Agreement that gives Asheville 5 percent of the system’s gross revenues (currently about $1.1 million a year) and Buncombe County 2.5 percent. Some Water Authority board members have questioned those payments, saying the money should be funneled back into the system to fund desperately needed repairs.

At the council meeting, Worley noted that the city’s bold move had grown out of the visioning process undertaken during a recent series of Council retreats. The Strategic Operating Plan, adopted in the wake of those meetings, calls for the city to, among other things, “gain control of growth by disengaging from the existing Water Agreement.” To achieve that end, the document lays out the following tasks:

“1. Resolve participation of Henderson County.

2. Formulate a sequential strategy to eliminate non-water issues from the water agreement.

3. Revise structure to encourage voluntary annexation.

4. Complete restructuring prior to any annexation law revision.”

Items no. 3 and 4 appear telling in light of legislation now pending in the state legislature that could limit cities’ ability to annex outlying areas. Asheville has conducted a steady stream of annexations in recent years that have added to the tax base. And charging county residents more for water might make the prospect of annexation more appealing.

All together now

The only member of the public to speak against the resolution at the hearing was Hazel Fobes, chair of Citizens for Safe Drinking Water and Air. Criticizing Council for considering a “hastily drawn” plan, Fobes added: “I was stunned to receive, only two days ago, your draft resolution — an action to amend or terminate the current provisions for a Water Authority. … The document deals with the basis and justification for radical change with only implied reasons and argumentation.”

But it was clear from the outset of the hearing that while Council members were solidly behind the resolution, they were also concerned about how the move would be received.

“This does not diminish our regional commitment,” Worley declared, adding, “We will continue to work with our neighbors.” And at a hastily called press conference the next morning, he observed, “Regionalism is the method of providing water, not … the method of distributing water.”

Council member Joe Dunn, one of the city’s two appointees to the Water Authority board, echoed that sentiment, saying, “Regionalism, for me, is who gets the water — not who owns the system.”

And Terry Bellamy chimed in, “Regionalism is making sure everyone has water; who owns the system is a different issue.”

Asked if Asheville had informed Henderson County officials of the city’s intentions, however, Mayor Worley said, “No. They’re not a party to this agreement. This is an agreement between us and Buncombe.”

Buncombe County leaders have also expressed an interest in reconsidering the Water Agreement, Worley maintained. And the next step, said the mayor, will be for city and Buncombe County staffers to review the document and prepare a report on renegotiation.

Clearly, however, major questions remain. Repairing the decrepit water system would require hundreds of millions of dollars over the coming decades, according to consultants hired by the Water Authority. And although Council members made it clear they favor charging county residents more for water, they also promised rate reductions for city residents — which would presumably offset a portion of any revenue gained. Asked if the city had looked at how much money could be raised that way, Worley said, “We’re unaware of any specific numbers.”

Where all this leaves the Water Authority, meanwhile, is anybody’s guess. On May 27, the authority board passed its 2004-05 budget on a 6-2 vote, with Dunn and Peterson opposed; the document must now be approved by all three member governments. But the budget, which would take effect July 1, includes new meter fees designed to raise money for infrastructure repairs — recalling last year’s budget fight, when the Buncombe County Commissioners refused to approve the budget due to similar proposed fees. That forced the Water Authority to operate on the previous year’s budget.

Paying for money

Council also considered whether to renew the city’s contract with Ball-Janik, a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm.

When the city was discussing the contract last spring, some Council members questioned the need for a lobbyist when U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor maintains an office just around the corner from City Hall. Council member Joe Dunn and Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower argued that it would be better to work directly with Taylor, known as one of the 12 “cardinals” of the House of Representatives because of his position on the powerful Appropriations Committee, than to pay for what Mumpower called “an unnecessary buffer” between constituents and their elected representative.

Mayor Charles Worley, however, argued strongly for the lobbyist, explaining that federal grants were “drying up” and that Asheville would need a D.C.-based advocate in order to stay competitive. In the end, the contract was approved with the stipulation that it be revisited in a year to determine whether the city was getting enough bang for its buck.

Fast-forward to May 25, when Economic Development Director Mac Williams stood before City Council and recommended approving the $65,000 contract. Since hiring Ball-Janik, said Williams, the city has received $2.3 million in federal funding. The bulk of that money ($2 million) was an appropriation for synchronizing traffic lights in Asheville; the remaining $300,000 was a grant for Asheville Transit to buy a new city bus.

And this time around, Dunn — clearly pleased by the return on Asheville’s $60,000 investment — was singing a different tune. Mumpower, however, was even more opposed. Calling the lobbyist/city relationship an “ex-officio level of government we’re creating artificially,” Mumpower reasoned that securing funding for the largest city in the 11th Congressional District is “the congressman’s job,” adding, “And it’s our job to work with him.” Mumpower also argued that it’s impossible to prove that the lobbyist deserves the credit for getting Asheville the money, as both Williams and Worley later acknowledged.

Nonetheless, Worley maintained that it’s “extremely helpful to have a lobbyist position the city’s projects.”

Critics have long decried the “revolving door” that sees former elected officials and staffers jump back and forth between public service and private lobbying. Williams, however, cited one such example as an advantage for Asheville. Before being hired by Ball-Janik, Sean Dalton (the staffer assigned to work on the city’s behalf) had worked for Charles Taylor. And earlier this year, Dalton left Ball-Janik to return to Taylor’s staff. In other words, “Our account rep is now Taylor’s chief of staff,” as Williams boasted with a smile.

And in an April 14 memo to Mayor Worley, Government Relations Consultant Hal Hiemstra of Ball-Janik wrote: “With Sean Dalton moving back onto Rep. Charles Taylor’s staff, our capacity to represent the city has actually been enhanced with a former Ball-Janik professional now on ‘the inside.'”

City Council voted 6-1 to approve the contract for another year; Mumpower cast the lone opposing vote. <@endbullet>X<$>

And in this corner…

Asheville residents wishing to comment on the 2004-05 city budget — or on a controversial war on drugs proposed last month by Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower — will want to mark Tuesday, June 8 on their calendars. That’s when the Asheville City Council has scheduled a public hearing.

In his written introduction to the $103 million budget, City Manager Jim Westbrook notes that the document was produced under “favorable circumstances.” In other words, the city actually has some money to spend this year. Westbrook credits the change to growth in the tax base (through both annexation and new construction) and increased sales-tax revenues.

But that newfound wealth also occasioned one of the most divisive and pointed Council debates in recent memory when Mumpower put his million-dollar project, dubbed “Operation Hard Time,” on the table at the May 3 budget workshop. And though the vice mayor secured the support of Council members Jan Davis and Joe Dunn, opposition by Mayor Charles Worley and Council members Terry Bellamy, Holly Jones and Brownie Newman — who argued for a more holistic approach to combating drug use and related crime in the city — appeared to defeat the measure.

Mumpower, however, has vowed to revisit the issue, and with the deadline for approving a new budget looming (the new fiscal year begins July 1), time is running out.

And since public comment wasn’t taken at the budget workshop, June 8 is shaping up to be city residents’ first opportunity to weigh in on Mumpower’s proposal.

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