The better part of valor?

It was a kinder, gentler, more discreet Asheville City Council. And appropriately, the change was reflected as much in what Council members didn’t say as in what they did.

How great a concession the offer represents depends on how highly one rates Asheville’s chances of winning its lawsuit against the state.

At a special June 12 meeting at UNCA with three Buncombe County commissioners and the local legislative delegation to Raleigh, Mayor Terry Bellamy and her colleagues offered what they described as a major concession: For the first time since City Council unanimously voted in June of 2004 to dissolve the 1981 Water Agreement — and, by extension, the Regional Water Authority — Asheville put an offer on the table that included forsaking higher charges for customers outside the city limits.

In exchange, Council members asked the county to pay the city $6 million a year to make up for the city’s inability to charge outside water customers 85 percent more (the average differential across the state). Those charges, they argued, offset the cost of municipal services and facilities that outside residents use but don’t pay for in their property taxes. Under the proposal, the city would retain control of water-system assets.

But how great a concession the offer represents depends on how highly one rates Asheville’s chances of winning its lawsuit against the state, in which the city argues that Sullivan Acts II and III should be declared unconstitutional. Passed last year by the General Assembly at the county’s behest, these laws prohibit the city (uniquely among North Carolina municipalities) from charging rate differentials, using access to the water system as an annexation tool, or diverting water revenue for other purposes. The Sullivans negated much of what the city had hoped to gain by pulling out of the Water Agreement but did nothing to cushion the blow of what it would lose — several million dollars’ worth of annual payments from the county to fund recreational facilities within the city limits and to reimburse Asheville for Sheriff’s Department services that city residents pay for in their county taxes but don’t use.

At any rate, Asheville’s new proposal kindled little enthusiasm among the three Buncombe County representatives who attended the meeting: Chairman Nathan Ramsey and Commissioners David Gantt and Bill Stanley. Gantt said it wouldn’t be fair to raise the $6 million from taxes levied throughout the county, since rural residents who neither use those city services nor receive city water would nonetheless have to help pay for them.

Instead, the commissioners restated their support for a true regional water authority along the lines of the Metropolitan Sewerage District, which owns its own infrastructure. The county, noted Gantt, now believes that such an approach would save the system as much as $4 million a year through “nonbetterment” reimbursements. (True regional authorities are reimbursed by the state when they’re forced to dig up lines in connection with road projects. But estimates of those savings have varied widely — from next to nothing to more than $1 million per year — though most have been well below $4 million.)

Despite the tepid reception for Asheville’s proposal, the county commissioners and state legislators did get excited about two other matters: venting their frustration with the city over its previous treatment of them and declaring that Council members have no one but themselves to blame for the budget bind the city now finds itself in.

Sen. Bruce Goforth, for instance, recounted how he hadn’t learned that the city was going to pull out of the Water Agreement until the day before Council voted to do so. And Ramsey remarked that the city should have realized it would face budget consequences before making that fateful decision. Rep. Wilma Sherrill, meanwhile, said the “negative” e-mail correspondence that then Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower had released to the press last year had been “a bad reflection on the whole City Council.”

For his part, Mumpower maintained that he’d never made any personal attacks. He also argued that the city and county would have been able to negotiate a new agreement last year if it hadn’t been for the legislative delegation, which, “in collusion with the county, trumped the process” by introducing Sullivan II and III.

The remaining six City Council members, however, took pains to sound as nonconfrontational as possible. Mayor Bellamy, for instance, described the past as “water under the bridge”; stressed that the city’s attitude had changed with the arrival of a new mayor and city manager; and speaking, she said, for all Council members except Mumpower, apologized for the strident tone of the city’s earlier communications.

Rather than pointing out that the county had twice vetoed a meter fee needed to fund long-overdue water-system maintenance, as city representatives had done in the past, Bellamy and her fellow Council members scrupulously avoided criticizing the commissioners. Instead they talked abstractly about wanting to provide “good stewardship” of the system and noted the challenge, under the old Water Authority, of having to get the budget approved by “various governmental bodies.”

The conciliatory approach did, in fact, seem to soften the state legislators. Soon they were talking about how the city would need both their help and the county’s to deal with the Civic Center.

But when Goforth said he thought it would be best to work out the water issues first before moving onto other regional funding issues, Council Member Brownie Newman — after carefully noting that there was “a lot of wisdom” in that approach — said his constituents would need to feel they were getting something in return for relinquishing rate differentials.

Likewise, when Gantt talked about the need to first gather better figures, Newman spoke of the “urgency on our side” to negotiate an agreement before the courts issued a ruling on the city’s lawsuit. But when Newman asked whether any of the county’s previous offers were still on the table, Gantt replied that he couldn’t say, since two commissioners weren’t there and the board would want unanimity on something so important.

Commissioner Stanley, meanwhile, suggested that negotiations could be more fruitfully conducted by the city and county managers, rather than elected officials. “There are too many of us,” he observed.

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