Water pressure

With two weeks remaining before the Water Agreement expires on June 30, Asheville finds itself in a bind. Convinced that the county and the local legislative delegation in Raleigh are working together to push the city to transfer its water assets to the Metropolitan Sewerage District (or perhaps a new regional water authority), Asheville faces what it clearly considers an unpleasant choice: Cut a deal largely along the lines laid out by the county, or take its chances in court.

The city’s sense that the county and the local delegation have been acting in concert began with wary apprehension in late February, when Rep. Wilma Sherrill and Sen. Martin Nesbitt introduced blank bills (placeholders in case state legislators wanted to introduce water legislation after the deadline). The perception grew stronger when Sherrill and Reps. Bruce Goforth and Susan Fisher introduced two actual bills that would bar Asheville from charging customers outside the city limits more for water without preserving any of the tax-equity benefits in the current Water Agreement that have offset the ban on rate differentials.

Then it came out that attorneys working for the county had played a large part in drafting the language of those bills — whereas the city didn’t even learn about them until they were posted on the General Assembly’s Web site. And a few days after the county released its most recent proposal (which called for merging Asheville’s water system with the Metropolitan Sewerage District) on May 24, members of the local delegation began talking publicly about asking the General Assembly to transfer Asheville’s assets to MSD.

Yet an e-mail released last week in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Asheville Citizen-Times suggests that the county may in fact be taking its cues from the delegation, rather than the other way around.

“We need to meet with Martin, Wilma, Bruce and [Sen. Tom] Apodaca over the next few days and develop a strategy,” Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey wrote to his fellow board members on April 27, after a failed attempt at mediation with the city. “I can be at this meeting but if someone else can make it then they should attend. Since DG [David Gantt] is out of town, [there] probably should be two reps. of either Bill [Stanley], Carol [Peterson], or DY [David Young]. Wanda [County Manager Wanda Greene] will call [attorney Bob] Long tomorrow morning. My position is whatever they want us to do, we do it from a proposal to the city to whatever else they may have in mind. We need to settle this with the city but, most importantly, we need to do what they want us to.”

The one member of the local delegation who apparently was not invited to the powwow was Susan Fisher, who has clearly been the legislator most torn in her loyalties. Although Fisher co-sponsored the bills (known as Sullivan II and III), she subsequently e-mailed fellow legislators about her reservations, and in the House committee that handles local bills, she spoke against hastily adopting them. Fisher says she then delayed a vote on the House floor by sending the two bills to the Rules Committee.

Nonetheless, when they returned to the House floor, she voted for them. Fisher says she felt she had to vote for the bills since her name was on them, adding that she sees her vote as merely “sending them to the Senate.”

All the members of the delegation have stressed that they still hope the city and county can reach an agreement. And whereas the city has argued that the bills tilt the playing field in the county’s favor, enabling the commissioners to take a much tougher negotiating line, Ramsey maintains that the city wouldn’t even be talking to the county if it weren’t for the pressure from the looming legislation.

The county’s most recent proposal, says Ramsey, addresses many of the city’s stated concerns. It includes a payment of $2.5 million (which he describes as negotiable) to reimburse Asheville for turning over or leasing its assets, and a higher (though unspecified) tap fee for new development outside the city. This would encourage voluntary annexation, he says, because many developers would want to avoid paying that up-front fee.

Ramsey also says the county’s proposal to merge the system with the Metropolitan Sewerage District (which, unlike the current Water Authority, is a fully autonomous entity) would reap savings for everyone by avoiding the “nonbetterment” fees now incurred when the state has to dig up water lines in connection with road projects.

But at a special MSD meeting on June 3, called by Chairman Steven Aceto to canvass MSD board members on their thoughts about a merger, Asheville appointees to the board sounded distinctly unenthusiastic. Asheville City Council member Terry Bellamy noted that whereas MSD had been created by freely collaborating local governments, now Asheville is “being pushed, and it’s not fair. … The city’s being told: If you don’t do it, you can’t grow or can’t use your tools to grow.”

And City Engineer Cathy Ball, another Asheville appointee, declared that she is “personally and professionally very much opposed” to a merger with MSD. “Asheville has the right to control its own destiny, and everybody’s trying to do that for it,” Ball declared, adding that she would prefer to have control over sewers returned to the city as well.

“You’ve got to look at it from a planning perspective, not just a utility perspective,” she said. “Where water and sewer lines go, there goes the growth. The biggest issue is what kind of community do you want? Do you want urban sprawl? Strip shopping malls down Brevard Road all the way to Walnut Cove?”

On June 7, Mayor Charles Worley wrote an official response to the county’s merger proposal. He said the city intended to analyze it “thoughtfully and carefully” but noted that the proposal was “something radically different from anything previously discussed.

“This only complicates an already complex issue,” said Worley, “and causes the Council to ask whether the County is serious about reaching an agreement.”

By the end of the week, however, the city was looking more favorably on at least one aspect of the county’s plan: the potential for nonbetterment savings. Asheville had originally believed that the savings would be small, because most lines that would be disturbed by upcoming state road projects were slated for bigger pipes anyway. The city had thought that these upgrades would be considered “betterment costs” and that therefore, even a truly independent regional authority such as MSD would still have to pay them.

But then the city determined that a true authority would, in fact, have to pay only for the difference in cost between replacing a pipe with one of the same size and replacing it with a bigger one. That would allow for substantial savings — about $1 million a year, by the county’s reckoning.

[Jonathan Barnard covers water issues for Xpress.]

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