An asset of the people?

Heart of the city water system: If Rep. Tim Moffitt’s bill to transfer the Asheville water system to the Metropolitan Sewerage District passes, the city would likely demand compensation for the value of the infrastructure, such as the 21,000 acres that include the North Fork Reservoir. photo by Jonathan Welch

A bill proposed by state Rep. Tim Moffitt that called for seizing Asheville's water system and transferring it to the Metropolitan Sewerage District has undergone a sea change. Referred to the House's Government Committee May 25, the bill emerged the next day looking quite different.

“The Legislative Research Commission shall study whether requiring large cities that have a municipal water system and that are located entirely within a Metropolitan Sewerage District to convey that water system to the district will improve the efficiency of providing public services,” it now reads. Asheville appears to be the only city in the state that meets these criteria.

And on May 27, Moffitt said his critics had gotten it all wrong. The study, the first-term Republican explained, will include local input — the lack of which had left city officials fuming. Moffitt also said he’d intended it to be a study bill all along.

Asked why, if that was the case, he hadn’t filed it as such, Moffitt said: “Well, you get jammed up on schedules — you can only get so much done. I really wasn’t going to do anything with regard to the water system, but when [the city] decided to raise those rates, I decided to draft something quickly, just to get in under the filing deadline.”

And though the bill makes no mention of compensating the city for its considerable loss, Moffitt also took issue with those who say he wants to seize the water system.

“Once we get through auditing the entire system, and really determine what dollars were used — rate-payer dollars or city-resident tax dollars — whatever city taxpayers have invested in the system will be absolutely considered for compensation,” he said, adding, “That language of ‘seizing’ was rather strong and not the intent of the bill at all.” Moffitt didn’t indicate where that money might come from, with government at all levels slashing expenditures.

On April 12, the Asheville City Council approved a rate increase for commercial, multifamily and industrial users, effective July 1; the single-family residential rate will remain the same. A 2011 study of the city's water rates by Raftelis Financial Consultants found that residential users bore a disproportionate share of the fee burden, compared to those in other cities.

Driving the discussion

Moffitt’s controversial bill sparked an immediate reaction. Asheville City Council member Gordon Smith encouraged readers of Scrutiny Hooligans, the political blog he founded and still writes for, to contact the local legislative delegation and other House Republicans, asking them to back off.

“On Thursday, May 26, the House Committee on Government is scheduled to take the bill (HB 925) up as it was written. There have been no discussions, no studies, no outreach to stakeholders, yet it is moving ahead. The city is responding,” Smith wrote on the blog, quoting from Council’s draft resolution opposing Moffitt’s bill.

That same afternoon, Emmet Carney, the recently elected chair of the Buncombe County Democratic Party, proclaimed on his party's website, “I am shocked and appalled to write that Tim Moffitt has moved [consideration of] his bill to give the city’s water system to the Metropolitan Sewerage District to tomorrow, Thursday the 26th. This is particularly galling since he claimed to have introduced the bill to ‘drive the discussion.’”

As for the proposed study, Moffitt said: “I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be interesting in regard to taking a walk through our history, getting the actual facts put together in a concise document that really shows what county residents have invested in the system, what city residents have invested in the system, and approach this as an asset of the people — not any particular government body.”

The freshman representative has also clashed with local officials over bills he’s proposed or sponsored, including: rolling back prior annexations by Asheville, changing the way the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners is elected (a move the General Assembly approved April 18), and handing off the Asheville Airport to an independent authority. The latter bill has the support of Buncombe County's two Democratic state representatives.

A two-way street

Moffitt’s failure to consult with local officials before proposing the bill has been a major sore point with city officials. But going forward, he said, “Members of City Council, county commissioners and MSD will be part of the study commission.” Moffitt also said he sent City Council a copy of his revised bill before it was taken up by the House committee.

In an email informing Council members of the switch to a study bill, however, City Attorney Bob Oast noted: “This does not mean that the issue is settled, or that we requested this study, or that we agree with a particular recommendation. I think those points should be conveyed to the legislators.”

Moffitt expects the process to take about a year. The only three scenarios he considers practical would be transferring the water system to MSD or to a fully independent water authority — or leaving it in the city’s hands. “There’s no attempt to privatize the system,” he emphasized.

As for his critics, Moffitt said: “The process, which seems to be people’s main frustration with me, is really a two-way street. The city didn’t consider contacting me before raising rates on businesses or residents. I didn’t complain about that.”

Asked if he believes the city should consult with him before raising water rates, Moffitt replied: “No. The cities are local-government units, and they have that authority. But [they] need to recognize that their policies, over the years, are contributory to the job crisis we currently have.”

Moffitt added: “Municipal jobs have fled the cities into the counties. Where municipal services are required to serve industry, when [cities] make policy that affects those services, those businesses leave the state. So we take very seriously … the actions of local-government units, to make sure that they’re not doing anything that’s costing local jobs. A local job is, in essence, a state job: It affects everyone.”

Moffitt’s bill appears to apply only to Asheville, though it doesn’t mention the city by name. Asked if the study would look at any other Tar Heel city, Moffitt said: “I don’t think so. … Our [water system] is too unique, as far as the Sullivan Acts, the Depression-era bonds.”

To date, Moffitt says he hasn’t heard much from constituents concerning the bill. “There seems to be a handful of people in the city who are active about everything that comes out of Raleigh. By and large, though, people just want clean, safe drinking water. How it’s managed is immaterial to them. … What it costs is material to them.”

— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at dforbes@mountainx.com.

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22 thoughts on “An asset of the people?

  1. J

    It’s great to have a local legislator to drive discussion on the best way to administer resources and govern.

    In the past our only discussion, locally, was “do you want higher fees, or higher taxes”, a discussion city council is stuck on.

  2. I went to that Scrutiny Hooligan website but it’s blank. It appears I have been banned.
    ………………………….

  3. Curious

    Could someone knowledgeable give us unknowledgeable ones some background on how the City of Ashevillegot itself into this mess with its water system? Was the County justified in having the Sullivan Acts passed, preventing the City from charging differential water rates for non-city residents? Why was the old regional water agreement discarded? I’m sure there are partisans on both sides, so some enlightenment would help us unenlightened citizens. Perhaps City Councilmen Smith and/or Bothwell could explain, since they take the trouble to comment here. Who is at fault, if fault can be assigned? If elected officials are making the problem worse, rather than finding a solution, it would be useful to know at election time.

  4. J

    @ Curious,

    The city is really at fault. They unilaterally decided to pull out of the water agreements. The county offered several concessions (behind closed doors)

    Speculation arises that the city wanted to be able to charge higher water rates in the county as leverage for annexation.

    Ultimately, the county had no interest in paying higher water rates, so they had the Sullivan Acts passed that prevented the city from bullying the county residents.

  5. Curious

    J, thank you, that’s helpful as far as it goes, but I’m unclear as what the water agreements were? I can understand that the City might have had “motives” in wanting to use water rates as a carrot-and-stick for annexation (higher property taxes). But what I don’t understand is why Asheville can’t do this, when other cities in the state are allowed to? The Sullivan Acts are clearly “discriminating” against Asheville, but on what grounds? I assume there are more voters in the county than in the city, hence our elected politicians in Raleigh can cater to the county voters and vote against the perceived interests of the city voters. You speak of the city bullying the county. . but it sounds like the county is now bullying the city. Need help in understanding this. Do none of our city officials have any political clout/alliances with either county officials or Raleigh politicians? Which county commissioner and which city councilperson deserves my vote on the basis of their building some cooperation between city and county and Raleigh?

  6. Curious

    Thank you to David Forbes for the link. The 2005 story explains the history and complexity of this issue very well (well done to Jonathan Barnard). It sounds like little headway has been made in city-county-Raleigh political relationships in the six years since then. To this bystander (but voter and tax-payer and water-rate payer), it sounds like a lack of good political leadership and statesmanship all around. Time for new leadership in all spheres, city, county,and Raleigh?

  7. Margaret Williams

    We’ve got the Water Agreements in our mountinx.com/xpressfiles archives:

    1996 (an amended “restated” version of the 1995 one)
    http://www.mountainx.com/xpressfiles/restated_and_amended_supplemental_water_agreement_1996

    1995 (when Henderson County joined in)
    http://www.mountainx.com/xpressfiles/asheville-buncombe-henderson_water_agreements_1995

    1987 (“In 1981, Buncombe County, the city of Asheville and individual water districts in the county came together and created the Asheville/Buncombe Water Authority. Here’s the Supplemental Water Agreement signed in 1987.”
    http://www.mountainx.com/xpressfiles/asheville-buncombe-henderson_water_agreements#.TfQnWM1e0ZA

  8. Barry Summers

    The city is really at fault. They unilaterally decided to pull out of the water agreements. The county offered several concessions (behind closed doors)

    The report from the mediators in the 2005 negotiation between the City and County tell a very different story:

    “The most difficult external barrier to a negotiated outcome came from the local legislative delegation. The existence of the proposed bills, Sullivan II and III, during the mediation profoundly changed the dynamics of the negotiations. The key issues of growth control and differential pricing suddenly became non-negotiable… (emphasis mine)

    “Had there been no legislative intervention whatsoever, the issues that were so important to the city likely would have been perceived as negotiable items by the county negotiators. This could have allowed the parties to explore options around these issues that could have yielded satisfactory results. Taken altogether, the cumulative impact of external influences and the change in negotiation dynamics due to the existence of the proposed bills created a situation in which there was virtually no viable bargaining range between the two parties.”

    Get it? The County walked into the ‘negotiations’ with a loaded gun. They had no interest in genuine negotiation, they wanted to take all the marbles. The City didn’t respond well to being bullied. Does this surprise anyone? Nathan Ramsey and the County staff acted like thugs, and the negotiations collapsed as a result. That’s not my opinion, that’s the report by professional outside observers.

    http://www.ncsu.edu/nrli/resources/documents/Water_Mediation_Evaluation-Dec2008_Full_Report_2_.pdf

    • D. Dial

      Barry,
      Thanks for this. I’ll sprinkle this link around so folks who are interested can get a better understanding.

  9. Barry Summers

    Moffitt: “There’s no attempt to privatize the system,” he emphasized.

    What a Clintonian statement. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4XT-l-_3y0

    And if you think this is just a liberal/conservative tale, don’t forget that Carl Mumpower called the County’s actions on the water issue “the most politically nefarious in Asheville’s history.” And he called what Moffitt is doing now, what it is: “securing the theft.”

    http://www.citizen-times.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2011305220010

  10. Curious

    And thank you to Barry Summers for the link to the NCSU report on the mediation process. Greatly disturbing. What are citizens to think of their leaders? Maybe it’s time for Carolina Public Press to do an in-depth update on this sad situation.

    Any comments from any elected officials? Anyone? If water services aren’t core services – and core issues for voters – what is?

  11. Barry Summers

    Interesting international development: Italian voters overwhelmingly rejected fascist billionaire child molester Silvio Berlusconi’s dictate that all municipalities must privatize their water systems:

    “With approximately one-third of ballots counted… 95.64 opposed the privatisation of water, the interior ministry said.”

    Side note: Berlusconi’s govt. urged people NOT to vote in the referendum, in the hopes that the 50% turnout threshold necessary would not be reached. They turned out anyway.

    Note to King Moffitt: the people will be heard.

  12. sharpleycladd

    Curious, I hope your reading has taken you through the roughly 50 years of technical bankruptcy the City of Asheville endured after the crash of ’29, due largely to some serious public works investments, principally the Beaucatcher Tunnel and the reservoir/water system. Mayor Cathey was quite the upbuilder.

    House of Morgan, fixed property-tax millage, running the city off of water receipts, etc. It’s an interesting story.

    The City of Asheville is the economic hub of an eleven-county region because its elected officials have generally shown more foresight and spent money a good deal more wisely than folks in Hendersonville, and light years more wisely than folks in Rep. Moffitt’s neck of the woods.

  13. TwoBears

    I’m more concerned with the fact that I’ve lived here for two years and six times have been told by the city not to drink the water.

  14. The above comments under my name and avatar are not mine. The comments should be removed and the member be banned. Right?

    Again, thanks for making me the subject of this thread. I am much more interesting than the water system.
    ………………

  15. “If only I could comment at Tim’s blog to respond!”
    By Gordon Smith

    Dear Fake Gordon Smith, I am not running a community blog. Are you?
    ……………..

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