For the moment, the Regional Water Authority’s budget for the next fiscal year is all wet.
After hearing a round of citizen complaints that area water bills are too high already, Buncombe County commissioners voted 3-2 on June 23 to reject the Water Authority’s proposed budget, which includes a 9 percent increase in water rates.
Commissioners Bill Stanley, David Young and David Gantt voted to refuse the budget; commissioners Patsy Keever and Tom Sobol opposed the motion.
Gantt explained his vote, saying he was standing up for businesses and residents. Keever argued that it was “a little late” to try to change the budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
The Regional Water Authority rates are among the highest in the Southeast, according to Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene.
Commissioners will have another opportunity to vote on the budget at their June 30 meeting, when they vote on the county’s FY 1998-’99 budget.
In the meantime, city and county staff will meet with members of the Water Authority (which has already approved its budget) to try to iron out some of the budgetary problems, said Assistant City Manager Doug Spell. From last September until this March, Spell served as interim water resources director, and he was key in forming the proposed budget.
No matter what staffers decide, however, water rates will rise at least 5 percent. That amount will be needed to retire Water Authority debts, which have increased from $2.6 million in 1996 to a current level of $5.3 million. The Water Agreement between Asheville and Buncombe County states that, if both participating governments don’t approve the budget, the Water Authority must operate on its previous year’s budget, plus any costs associated with debt service, said Spell.
Spell told Xpress that he hoped to present commissioners with a budget they can approve at their June 30 meeting. “All their questions have very legitimate answers that we can provide,” he said.
About $33,000 in the proposed budget is earmarked for relocating several pesticide-mixing stations that now sit on the banks of the Mills River, directly upstream from the intake of the new water-treatment plant. A study by Citizens for Safe Drinking Water concluded that discharges from those stations are the probable cause of a drastic decrease in aquatic life in the river.
If commissioners don’t pass the Authority’s proposed budget, the stations probably won’t get moved, said Spell. He maintained, however, that the treatment plant would be able to remove those chemicals.
The new plant should be in operation by next March, Spell said. Treated water from the Mills River will flow through the taps of houses in Asheville and Buncombe and Henderson counties.
Playing a round of golf on the county’s course will become a little pricier, starting July 1. Commissioners approved raising greens fees by $5, to $20 before 3 p.m. (daylight-saving time), and $15 after.
The fee hikes will help the golf course operate at a profit, said county Recreation Services Director Annette Wise.
Commissioners also approved raising some county permit and inspection fees.
County budget comments
The hearing on the budget for the next fiscal year yielded some spirited public comment.
Jerry Rice thanked commissioners for scrutinizing the public-schools budget so closely. “They don’t know how to conserve,” he said. As an example, he mentioned a teacher supplement, which has grown over the years from costing the county “almost nothing” to nearly a $6 million annual tab.
County school teacher Ann Franklin responded, saying the supplement is a “morale booster” and “helps us maintain our certified staff.”
Don Yelton, the county’s former waste-reduction specialist who was let go this spring during a work-force cut, told commissioners that his old position had saved the county nearly $100,000, including successful grant proposals and money-saving programs that he was responsible for.
Yelton questioned whether the new 6.3 percent tax rate is truly revenue-neutral. With some irritation, Commissioner Stanley explained why commissioners believe it is.
Commissioners made the following board appointments: Greg Mayo, Jean King and Kathryn Proctor to the Economic Development Commission; Doug King and Darryl Unruh to the Airport Authority; Donna Fleming to the Historic Resources Commission; and Ernest Henderson and William Gillespie to the Farmland Preservation Board.