Regional water authority’s future grows doubtful

A month ago, selling the city’s Bent Creek property seemed to offer a way out of a long-standing stalemate: End a pesky lawsuit and use the money to build Henderson County water lines. Selling the land would have resolved many of the disputes that have centered around the 1995 Regional Water Agreement made between Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson Counties.

But on June 3, representatives from the three governments and the Regional Water Authority learned that the 139-acre parcel was appraised at a mere $1.3 million — far less than expected.

The announcement elicited stunned silence from the nine-member renegotiation team. Bill Moyer — Henderson County Board of Commissioners chairman and a Regional Authority member — had declared last month that his county needed $250,000 annually for the next 20 years.

That amount would allow construction of water lines in north Henderson County and fulfill the terms of the 1995 Regional Water Agreement, he had argued. (In 1994, Asheville agreed to give the Bent Creek property to Henderson County, ostensibly in exchange for permission to buy land in Henderson County for the Mills River Water Treatment Plant, and in exchange for the approximately 5 million gallons per day of water the plant would draw out of the river for customers in south Buncombe and north Henderson counties].

But $1.3 million won’t fund $250,000 for 20 years.

After a long silence among team members and various county and city staff in the room, Buncombe County Commissioner Bill Stanley remarked, “This seem[s] like a mighty low appraisal to me.”

Asheville Mayor Charles Worley agreed, recalling that the city had bought the land in the mid-1980s for about $1 million. [Its value was estimated at that amount in 1996, when Asheville City Council members imposed restrictions on the deed before handing it over to Henderson County; those restrictions led to Henderson County suing the city over the deal last year.]

Asheville City Manager Jim Westbrook noted that staff would be taking a close look at the appraisal, which was turned in less than an hour before the renegotiation team met.

Stanley asked the next logical question of Moyer: “Are you set on $250,000 a year?”

“For the moment,” Moyer replied. The $250,000-per-year figure included estimated tax revenues the Mills River property would have earned the county had it remained in private ownership, he pointed out. Moyer also remarked that a more crucial question was whether Asheville, Henderson and Buncombe leaders want to maintain a regional approach … and keep the Regional Water Agreement alive. And will there be an independent water authority?

The current board — consisting of two Asheville appointees, two from Buncombe, two from Henderson and one at-large appointee — seems to be no more than an advisory group, with control held by Asheville, Moyer stated. The city owns the assets and provides the staff for the Authority board.

Authority member J. Lewis Daniels — an Asheville appointee — asked, “How serious are we about pursuing [an independent authority]? It’s important to assess that, [so we can understand] what the group wants to do. At the rate we’re going, we’ve got many more meetings to go.

The crux of it all

An initial poll of team members responding to Daniels’ question drew mixed results and renewed tensions between the parties.

Moyer declared that part of the reason Henderson County entered into the 1995 agreement was the understanding that a true regional authority would be created. “We are still very interested in [that], and if it isn’t going to happen, there’s no reason for Henderson to remain in the agreement,” he said.

Nathan Ramsey, Buncombe County chairman of the board of commissioners, said he supported creation of an independent authority and a continued regional approach. Stanley concurred.

But Asheville Mayor Charles Worley gave a qualified answer. On several issues, such as economic development, he said, the city is committed to regional approaches. But one of the reasons for pushing for an independent authority — escalating costs for relocating water lines affected by state Department of Transportation projects — may no longer be valid, he argued. Though estimates in the last few months have put those costs in the millions of dollars in the coming years, Worley declared that the average costs over the last few years have been a mere $340,000. An independent authority wouldn’t have to pay those costs, but $340,000 in a $6.8-million capital budget is a smaller portion than originally thought, Worley asserted. “Our direction toward a regional authority is based on something that might not be true,” he said.

Stanley then pointedly asked, “Is that a yes or a no [to a regional water authority], Mr. Mayor?”

Worley replied that it was a no … for the moment.

Ramsey picked up Worley’s undercurrent, assuring him that while Buncombe supported the creation of an independent authority, there was no desire on the county’s part to do something that would cause the city “financial harm” [Asheville gets 5 percent of the Water Authority’s annual revenues, and it owns the estimated $100 million in physical assets, such as water lines and treatment plants.] “I think there is an approach that would protect [Asheville] financially in the long term,” said Ramsey.

Authority Chairman Jack Tate joked that he’d have a lot more free time if the Authority dissolved. But he admitted being “disturbed” at Worley’s statements, such as the contention that the city owns the system. Though Asheville paid for and built many of the older lines and bought the North Fork Reservoir property, since 1981 the system has been paid for by the users, Tate asserted [Asheville and Buncombe entered into an agreement at that time, creating the original water authority]. Tate said he also found it disturbing that Asheville seems to be stepping back from the 1995 agreement and refusing to provide Henderson County with water lines — now that Asheville has the Mills River plant. “If [Asheville] is unwilling to give up the assets, it might as well give up on a regional approach,” Tate continued.

Henderson County needs to be compensated for the water being drawn out of the Mills River, Tate continued, reminding Worley how the city was in “dire straits” because of recurring droughts at the time of the agreement. “Consider what you’re doing to the spirit of regionalism … if you say no now,” said Tate.

“I assure you I’m committed to regionalism,” said Worley, in an increasingly testy exchange. Supplying water in the region is important economically, he remarked. “All I’m saying is we need to approach it in a way that makes the most sense. We haven’t hit on that yet. … I resent the implication [Asheville is] pulling back, now that we have ours,” Worley concluded.

Looking for solutions

Ramsey played peacemaker, assuring everyone, “There is a solution.” He repeated a suggestion Authority member (and former Buncombe chairman) Tom Sobol made in the past year: Create an independent authority, and let the new organization lease the assets from the city. But Ramsey agreed with one of Tate’s points — that the water system has been paid for by the users over the last 20 years, and considering the rampant leaks, “some lines aren’t an asset, they’re a liability.”

The discussion simmered along, Daniels commenting after a while that the group seemed to be getting bogged down in issues of control and distribution and the like. “If we want to unwind the [1995] agreement, that’s easy: We’ve heard what Henderson County wants,” he tossed in.

Moyer posed another question: Do renegotiation members want to undo the work that city and county leaders accomplished in 1995 when they drafted the agreement?

The board, as it is currently organized and run, is unworkable and frustrating for authority members, Sobol maintained. “We just feel like we’re changing seats on the Titanic,” he quipped [Sobol’s term ends this September, and two members recently resigned.] If things continue as they are, Sobol says he wonders what’s the point of continuing the agreement between Buncombe and Asheville.

Daniels remarked, “I don’t know why anyone would want to continue what we have. … We ought to go one way or the other: create an independent authority or abandon this hybrid, unworkable approach.”

Scrap all the agreements and start over, Stanley tossed out.

But Daniels joked, “That’s way too logical and we’d be over [these discussions] too soon.” He asked for a poll of who supported the creation of an independent authority and who didn’t — Buncombe, yes; Henderson, yes, Authority members, yes; Asheville, no.

But City Council member Jim Ellis softened the no with this remark, “We’ve come to the conclusion it’s difficult to establish a true authority, but we’re interested.”

And Daniels asked one more pointed question: Under what conditions would the city consider creating an independent authority?

Worley replied that city officials and staff had a lot of work to do to answer that question.

The meeting trickled to a close on that point, but not before the few citizens attending the meeting had a chance to speak. Asheville resident Mickey Mahaffey chided city officials for just now getting around to answering that last question, when the creation of an independent authority was called for in 1995 — and brought up again at the start of the renegotiations last fall. “I can see why the process is so frustrating when the city isn’t putting proposals on the table,” he declared.

Team members scheduled their next meeting for July 18, 9 a.m.-noon, at the Henderson County Board of Commissioners Office, 100 N. King St., downtown Hendersonville.

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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