If the Asheville City Council’s May 25 decision to “renegotiate or terminate the 1996 Water Agreement” (see “Water Power,” June 2 Xpress) chopped a leg off the Regional Water Authority, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners seems to have applied a tourniquet. But whether that tourniquet is being tightened around the bleeding stump or the neck of the regional agreement will be up to Council to decide.
Board Chairman Nathan Ramsey likened the dispute to a family quarrel, observing that it’s entirely possible to love someone and still disagree.
According to FBI statistics, however, most murder victims know their killers — many of whom are blood kin.
Taking care of business
Budget matters dominated the commissioners’ June 15 meeting. The big one — the county’s own — slid through virtually without comment, though county resident Jerry Rice did take the board to task for failing to amend the school budget in light of his detailed critique during the June 1 budget hearing. The $202 million county budget for fiscal year 2004-05 passed unanimously, with the commissioners thanking county staffers for their hard work. The election-year spending plan includes no change in tax rates and little change in spending patterns; the 4 percent increase in total expenditures is expected to be funded by anticipated growth in tax revenues.
The Water Authority budget, on the other hand, drew close scrutiny.
The Authority’s veteran interim director, David Hanks, described a system in sore need of extensive renovation. On any given winter day, he said, there are 20-30 major breaks in the crumbling water lines. According to consultants Brown and Williamson, the needed repairs will require an investment of $5.6 million next year and more than $50 million by 2010. Otherwise, under certain conditions (notably drought), the system’s water might not meet federal standards for turbidity, which would trigger fines and penalties and perhaps require customers to boil the water before using it.
A majority of both residential and industrial customers responding to a recent survey said they’re willing to pay more to ensure the system’s continued viability, noted Hanks.
He then presented a newly hatched budget proposal — hammered out at a Water Authority board meeting that very morning — which included a monthly meter surcharge designed to raise the money for the recommended repairs and upgrades. Residential customers would pay an extra $4 a month; the largest industrial users would face monthly increases of up to $650.
Up until that morning, those numbers had been $3 and $1,300 respectively, and commissioners Patsy Keever and Bill Stanley, both members of the Water Authority Board, expressed reservations about the surcharge. Stanley complained that the burden was being placed on residential users, though he acknowledged the need to avoid driving away businesses.
Keever worried about the impact on schools. “We have more than 70 county schools,” she noted, “and this kind of an increase will blow their budgets out of the water.”
Water Authority Chair Bill Lapsley described in detail both the negotiations of recent months and his consultations with Ramsey and Asheville Mayor Charles Worley. But all that, he said, will come to naught if the city follows through on its decision to dissolve the regional pact.
Rates and conditions
In the ensuing discussion, the commissioners took widely varying positions. David Young said he couldn’t support the budget, emphasizing that “the big issue is what is happening between the city and the county. … There is the potential for a big [rate] increase next year when the city dissolves the Authority.” Young said he would oppose the budget pending resolution of the larger issue.
Keever, on the other hand, argued that this could take years. “Look at the JPA [Joint Planning Area, the subject of protracted negotiations over portions of the county that the city might annex in the future],” she admonished, noting that, in the meantime, the water system is falling apart. “That’s why we should approve the budget now.”
David Gantt sided with Young. “Asheville has expressed an interest in not being a regional authority. That’s the bottom line.”
Keever’s motion to approve the budget failed for lack of a second. Then Ramsey made a motion, followed by a chorus of seconds, to approve it provided that the city agree not to dissolve the Water Agreement for three years. This led to a question for County Attorney Joe Connolly: Could the county put conditions on its budget approval?
Connolly said yes, but then Keever said: “Great — if they approve it. What happens if the city rejects it? Can we come back and fund it a little bit?”
“Yes, we can always go back and approve funding,” argued Young.
Then Gantt chimed in, saying: “I’ve been looking at the rate of increase. Rates have gone up over 25 percent since 1996. We can’t throw the people we represent to the wolves.”
In response to questions about whether Ramsey’s motion really involved two separate actions, County Manager Wanda Greene suggested that there were two separate parts: one involving the Authority’s operating budget and the other concerning capital expenses (i.e. the repairs). Keever then made a motion “to approve the operating budget without the capital-expense increase.”
Then it was Hanks’ turn to weigh in again, observing, “I’ve read the Water Agreement between 200 and 300 times, and every time I get a different perspective on it.” If the commissioners chose not to approve the budget, he said, the Authority would continue to operate under the previous year’s budget — which is larger than the proposed new one. Hanks admitted to being pleased by that prospect. (Ironically, however, the previous year’s budget was itself the result of the commissioners’ refusal to approve the $1 per month surcharge presented to them last June.)
At that point, all earlier resolutions were withdrawn, and Ramsey made a motion saying that if the city rescinded its notice of intention to terminate the Water Agreement and agreed to extend it for three years, the Board of Commissioners would approve both the extension and the Authority’s budget. That motion carried 5-0.
More money matters
On another fiscal note, Economic Development Director Mac Williams gave a presentation on a statewide initiative to legalize self-funding bonds; the measure will appear on the November ballot. Williams noted that he was appearing in his capacity as co-chair of North Carolinians for Jobs and Progress, a grassroots group formed to advocate for the intiative.
Self-funding bonds, already legal in 48 states, are financial instruments designed to facilitate government/private sector development partnerships, Williams explained. The bonds, which involve no general revenue and no government liability, are repaid via property taxes on the developed properties. Therefore, said Williams, they offer local governments a risk-free way to stimulate business growth. To make the bonds legal in North Carolina, the state constitution would have to be amended; the ballot initiative represents a step in that process.
The board unanimously approved a resolution supporting passage of the ballot measure.
Albert Sneed presented the commissioners with Asheville Buncombe Vision’s 2004 report, and Sonya Friedrich, chair of the Nursing Home Community Advisory Committee, delivered a progress report. The commissioners rejected an offer to buy the derelict Red Oak and Old French Broad elementary schools from the Buncombe County Board of Education, and endorsed a resolution urging the state Department of Transportation to designate a portion of Brevard Road/N.C. 191 as the Bob Pressley Memorial Highway.
The board also made the following appointments: Emily Boyce and Mike Kirstein (library board of trustees); Katina Turner and Jerry Young (URTV board); Gerald Mozian and commissioner Gantt (Asheville Regional Airport Authority). The latter appointment prompted Ramsey to quip: “No one can say I never voted for a Democrat. And this is an election year!”