More surprises

After two of the most momentous and unpredictable weeks in the history of water politics in Western North Carolina, observers had become almost habituated to surprise by the time the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson met to pass its budget on May 27.

What transpired that day was nowhere near as earthshaking as the Asheville City Council’s unanimous May 25 resolution to renegotiate or terminate the Water Agreement (and, by extension, the Water Authority itself). For that matter, it wasn’t even as notable as the Authority’s May 18 request that Asheville and Buncombe County give up the 5 percent and 2.5 percent of Authority gross revenues that they respectively receive each year (a proposal quickly quashed by Asheville). But the 6-2 vote that passed a budget supported by city staff nonetheless served up a shock: namely, the identity of those opposed. Rather than disgruntled Buncombe or Henderson County appointees bent on registering a protest vote, the two Authority members who turned thumbs down on the budget were none other than Asheville City Council member Joe Dunn and fellow Asheville appointee (and former City Council member) Brian Peterson.

Immediately after the meeting, Xpress asked Interim Water Resources Director David Hanks for his reaction “to how the vote broke down.” And the city employee joked, “You mean to being stabbed in the back by your own people?” Smiling at Peterson, who stood just a few feet away, Hanks hammed it up, clutching at an imaginary knife. But the mood might have been markedly less jovial had the vote gone the other way.

The Authority’s budget has long been a political football. Although Asheville owns the water system and city staff operate it, all three governments appoint Authority members, and both Asheville and Buncombe County must subsequently approve its budget. As a result, the Authority’s budget process offers great potential for deadlock and political grandstanding.

Three of the six Authority members who voted in favor of this year’s budget — which includes new meter fees to fund infrastructure repairs — had voted against a similar charge last year. Those three are Winston Pulliam and Ed Metz (both Authority members last year as well), plus Buncombe County Commissioner Patsy Keever (who was subsequently appointed to the Water Authority). In 2003, the budget failed when the Buncombe County commissioners came out unanimously against it — forcing the authority to continue operating on the previous year’s budget. But over the past year, consultants from Brown and Caldwell have conducted extensive research into the system and gotten these former skeptics to buy into their asset-management plan for “life-cycle” maintenance, which schedules “repairs and refurbishment” with an eye toward keeping long-term costs down.

And on May 18, Asheville Finance Firector Bill Schaefer had warned the Authority that if the system weren’t adequately funded this year, the city could get into trouble with its bondholders, since one of the covenants of the water-infrastructure bonds is that the city will maintain the system.

Curiously, the Henderson and Buncombe appointees apparently heeded Schaefer’s warning, whereas two of Asheville’s own appointees didn’t (though the third city representative, Darryl Hart, did vote in favor of the budget).

“I know we’ve got infrastructure problems,” Dunn acknowledged on May 27, “but we can’t take it out on the ratepayers.”

Peterson kept mum during the Authority meeting, but afterward, he said that with additional revenue expected as defective commercial meters are replaced, the Authority could afford to reduce the new meter fee for smaller residential users. “Three dollars a month is too high,” he asserted.

Like Peterson, Henderson County appointee Shannon Baldwin had voted against the budget as a member of the Authority’s Budget Committee. Baldwin, a Henderson County commissioner, views the off-the-top payments to Asheville and Buncombe as particularly unfair to Henderson County residents (who end up paying higher rates as a result without getting any offsetting benefit), and he’d hoped the city and county would agree to give up that extra revenue in the name of funding critically needed repairs. But with the city refusing to play ball, Baldwin said the Authority has to meet its responsibility to properly fund system maintenance on its own.

[Freelance translator/writer Jonathan Barnard lives in West Asheville.]

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