Amid talk of divorce and tantalizing hints of reconciliation, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the Regional Water Authority’s 2004-05 budget during a special session on June 29. The $22.6 million budget, previously approved by Asheville City Council and the Water Authority board, took effect July 1.
David Hanks, the Authority’s long-running interim director, had been turned away empty-handed when he first presented the spending plan to the commissioners on June 15. This time, however, he left the special session with his bucket one-quarter full. One key sticking point in the initial rejection was a proposed monthly Capital Improvement Projects surcharge — $4 on residential water bills and up to $650 for the Authority’s biggest customers — to pay for repairs and improvements to the decrepit water system.
In a governmental game of chess, the commissioners had initially rejected the budget while offering to approve it if the Asheville City Council backed off on its plan to terminate the 1981 Water Agreement (see “Water Pressure,” June 23 Xpress). Rejecting the new budget would force the Authority to continue operating under the previous year’s spending plan. The commissioners also rejected the Authority’s proposed budget last year (because of a much smaller proposed capital-improvements fee), but they subsequently approved it after the fee was removed.
This time around, however, Hanks asked the commissioners to approve the budget and the surcharge separately. Even though last year’s total budget was 2 percent higher, he said, there wouldn’t be enough money to meet projected expenses in certain categories.
Commissioner David Young‘s motion to approve the budget was seconded by Bill Stanley.
Commissioner Patsy Keever then suggested that the board also approve one-quarter of the capital-improvements fee — with the stipulation that the city and county not claim their respective shares of those revenues (under the Water Agreement, Asheville gets 5 percent and Buncombe County 2.5 percent of all Authority receipts).
Chairman Nathan Ramsey asked County Attorney Joe Connolly if such a move would be legal.
Connolly said it would, but he also urged the commissioners to “be very clear” in whatever action was taken.
Commissioner David Gantt asked Hanks, “Does this affect other municipalities?” But Hanks didn’t really answer the question.
Gantt later told Xpress that though he’d decided not to press the matter at the time, he did obtain figures from County Manager Wanda Greene showing that terminating the Water Agreement will put an end to non-water-related payments included in the document. Among these are “patrol and investigation” payments the county makes to areas the Sheriff’s Department does not patrol, to reimburse those municipalities for law-enforcement costs. Ending those payments would cost Asheville $1.8 million, Biltmore Forest $38,000, Black Mountain $200,000, Montreat $17,000, Weaverville $64,000 and Woodfin $84,000, the figures show.
Hanks did spell out, however, what one-quarter of the capital-improvements fee would cost: an extra $1 a month for residential customers and up to $162.50 a month for large industrial users. (Ironically, the commissioners rejected last year’s Water Authority budget because it included a $1 capital-improvements surcharge.)
“As I understand it, we have been given a termination notice by the city?” Young asked Greene.
“That’s correct,” the county manager replied.
“Next year we won’t have any say in water rates,” concluded Young.
Ramsey interjected: “I have had discussions with Council members and have been assured that they will be fair with us. By acting on this capital fee this year, we are assuring the city that we want to help.”
Keever, echoing Young’s point, noted, “Once we aren’t in the Authority anymore, we can’t control rates.” But she went on to support Ramsey’s position, saying, “We need to make a good-faith gesture to our constituents that we want to make this system work.”
Young, however, repeated a point he’d raised at the June 15 meeting: “We have raised rates 25 percent in the past five years.”
Ramsey, meanwhile, sought to reassure his fellow commissioners, saying, “Four Council members have told me that it is not a foregone conclusion that we will be out next July 1.”
“Whether we like it or not,” rejoined Gantt, “we have been given our divorce papers. The divorce is going to happen. We represent the people of all six cities involved, not just Asheville.” Then, continuing his simile, he said: “To me, it’s like going through a divorce and buying a house right before the divorce: It’s a bad idea. This is the wrong time to raise rates. If we were going to an independent Authority, I would say, ‘OK.”
But Ramsey repeated, “Four Council members have said that it isn’t necessarily over. What they are rejecting is the current structure, which is flawed.”
Commissioner Bill Stanley asked Hanks, “Is there work that needs to be done now?”
“We have $3.8 million worth of work that needs to be done at North Fork and Bee Tree.”
Keever interjected, “We need to vote on the budget now.”
Ramsey shot back, “Thank you, Chairman Keever.”
The board then unanimously voted to approve the budget.
After that, Keever made a motion to approve “one-quarter of the original C.I.P. fee, contingent on neither the city nor the county taking money from that funding, so that 100 percent of that money goes to the Authority.”
In the ensuing discussion, Ramsey observed: “I would hesitate to call it a divorce. It’s more like the wife wakes up one morning and says, ‘I think I want a divorce.'”
Young replied, “They’re not sure what the structure will be — but they seem to think it will be a city Water Department.”
At that point, Keever suggested that it was time to vote, and Ramsey once again thanked “Chairman Keever.” The revised capital-improvements fee was approved on a 3-2 vote, with Gantt and Young opposed.