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 firstname.lastname@example.org.