A water-money tango

In the dance of state politics, the question of where to spend taxpayers’ money usually comes down to a dip here, a spin there and a pirouette along the way. But for the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson, a small phrase slipped into state Senate bill 1381 — which nobody will own up to inserting — almost nixed the Authority’s chances for securing more water-bond money through the North Carolina Critical Needs/Infrastructure program, instituted in 1998.

To date, the Water Authority has received $5 million from the program — designed to help address high-priority needs of water, sewer and gas utilities. However, an amendment to S1381 would have limited awards to towns and cities, capping them at $3 million over a three-year period.

“That would make us ineligible next year,” reported Asheville Water Resources Director Tom Frederick.

The idea, the bill’s sponser said, was to divert funding from the bigger, more financially sound water systems, and making it available to the smaller ones. In terms of our Authority, however, several towns — which could have garned big money as individual entities — would be unfairly penalized for banding together.

To keep this from happening, local representives pounded on doors and hammered out a comprise, allowing the Water Authority to receive a maximum of $9 million over a three-year period.

Rep. Wilma Sherrill, contacted in Raleigh, said the House version of the bill (H1789) is sponsored by Democratic Rep. Douglas Yongue of Laurinburg, in central North Carolina. “The way the bill was written, Buncombe couldn’t get any more money for three years,” said Sherrill.

With the support of other local delegates, Rep. Martin Nesbitt moved (in the Appropriations Committee) to ax the restrictive amendment, she noted. “We were going to take [the three-year restriction] out, but the little-bitty counties didn’t like that.” There’s also been an attempt to distribute the grant funds evenly among the eastern, central and western parts of the state, she mentioned.

The three-year limit would hurt Asheville, but “it would help smaller [water and sewer] systems such as Marshall, which is also in my district,” explained Sen. Steve Metcalf, co-sponsor of S1381. He added, “The original intent of the thing was to spread the money out among the poorer systems that don’t have the high bond ratings and resources that larger systems like the Water Authority do.” In the initial grant period, much of the money “went east,” he noted. And what little did come to WNC went to systems that had land-use plans in place, he continued. Noting the resistance to land-use plans in this area, Metcalf explained that the smaller water systems “suffered in the grant process,” adding that he’d “be happy either way” the bill turns out.

Sherrill noted that a suggested compromise to the bill would make it possible to funnel more grant funds to larger counties such as Buncombe. That compromise passed — by one vote — in committee, but it now faces a battle in both the House and Senate. “The east is getting all the money [in the reallocation] right now, so they’re fighting us,” Sherrill said.

“The problem I have with limiting the amount of grants we can get is that it isn’t fair. It’s arbitrary. We’re perfectly happy to compete for grants,” said former Water Authority Chair Charles Worley. He served on the Authority when it first applied for a grant from the program, which was approved by voters in a referendum two years ago. “Those grants are addressing some of our priority service areas where we’ve got low water pressure, old two-inch water lines and other critical problems,” Worley explained. “Just look at the Authority’s budget each year. [The $3 million the agency received the first year] goes a long way.”

“When that referendum was presented to the voters, it was presented as a way of addressing critical needs, statewide. By making such a local limit, low-priority needs will be funded before more critical needs; the amendment sounds more like revenue sharing than meeting critical needs,” he observed, adding. “The Authority wants to compete on a needs basis.”

In 1998, $1 billion was committed to the Critical Needs program: $400 million for water-system needs and $600 million for sewer and natural gas. “How do you distribute the money? How do you set up a dedicated revenue stream to address such infrastructure needs in the years to come?” asked. Metcalf.

Sherrill — who, smack in the middle of the money dance, was meeting with Metcalf in her office the afternoon she spoke to Mountain Xpress — laughed and remarked that the answer to such reflections isn’t yet clear: The fate of S1381 is still up in the air, at least until the General Assembly’s short session ends later in July. She added, “We all want to get the money for us.”

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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