Hopes (or leaks, anyway) spring eternal

Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Here in Asheville and environs, long-running enmities and political infighting maintain a state of functional paralysis while the crumbling water infrastructure continues to decay and more than a quarter of the water produced by the system is lost to leaks.

With Asheville antagonists taking control of the Henderson County Board of Commissioners after last fall’s elections, talks between the two governments over water — which had seemed tantalizingly close to ending amicably after years of bad blood — appear to have stalled. Meanwhile, the spotlight has shifted to the far more complicated Asheville/Buncombe relationship.

In May, the Buncombe County Commissioners blocked the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson’s proposed 2003-04 budget by refusing to approve it. Besides derailing a proposed capital-improvements charge intended to fund repairs of the disintegrating water infrastructure, the commissioners’ action shone the spotlight on the political stalemate created by the failure to address the basic structural and political issues that have long plagued the water system. Offering a potential way out of the quagmire, Nathan Ramsey — chairman of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners (and its lone Republican) — outlined a proposal to create an independent regional authority that would take possession of the water infrastructure (now owned by Asheville). And at the other end of the political spectrum, liberal Asheville City Council member Brian Peterson described Ramsey’s offer as “promising” and “generous.”

Yet a host of daunting obstacles — from sharply conflicting vested interests to the legal entanglements and convolutions of previous Asheville/Buncombe water agreements — remain. And veteran observers of the region’s long-running water wars, while following these developments closely, say they’re not holding their breath. “I hope that something will come of it,” said Hazel Fobes, chair of Citizens for Safe Drinking Water and Air. “But I can’t truly say I’m optimistic.”

Past as prologue

Many of the problems are rooted in history. In 1933, Buncombe County lobbied the N.C. General Assembly to pass the Sullivan Act, which bars Asheville — alone among the state’s municipalities — from charging more for water delivered to customers outside the city limits. That didn’t sit well with Asheville, which protested the law for decades, mounting a failed court challenge in the 1950s and an unsuccessful campaign to get the legislature to repeal it in 1969.

Finally, in 1981, Asheville and Buncombe County formed the Authority (technically a “160-A” or “joint agency,” rather than a “162-A” or true regional authority). The grab-bag “water agreement” approved that year included much that had little or nothing to do with water. In exchange for the city’s agreeing not to challenge the Sullivan Act (in effect banning any city/county rate differential), Buncombe agreed to reimburse Asheville and other municipalities in the county for Sheriff’s Department services that their residents pay for (in their county taxes) but don’t use. (This now costs the county more than $2.6 million a year). The county also assumed responsibility for managing and maintaining various city-owned facilities (such as McCormick Field, the Aston Park tennis facility, the Nature Center and the Municipal Golf Course) that, argued Asheville, are used by all county residents.

Henderson County joined the Authority under a 1994 agreement (amended the following year) that allowed Asheville and the renamed Regional Water Authority — at a time of looming water shortage — to build a treatment plant at the confluence of the Mills and French Broad rivers. In exchange, Asheville agreed to give Henderson County a city-owned property in Bent Creek (to be used to site a sewage-treatment plant). The agreement also guaranteed that the water from the Mills River plant would first be made available to supply customers in northern Henderson County “without regard to quantity.” In addition, Henderson got two appointments to the Water Authority board, which was expanded to nine members. (Asheville and Buncombe each have three appointments; there’s also an at-large member elected by the other eight.)

The agreement required all parties to “work in good faith” toward finding “mutually acceptable” terms for transferring the water-system infrastructure from Asheville to the true Authority that was to be created later. But critics in both Buncombe and Henderson counties, as well as Fobes and other Asheville advocates of regionalism, argue that the city has failed to honor this commitment and that City Manager Jim Westbrook‘s control over Water Department staff has reduced the Authority to little more than an advisory board — “an Authority with no authority,” as its chairman, Jack Tate, puts it.

Forcing negotiations?

At the May 1 meeting of the Water Authority board, David Hanks, interim director of the city’s Water Resources Department, had proposed a new capital-improvements charge to help fund long-deferred system maintenance. After being cut by half to appease business groups concerned about its impact on economic development, the charge would have cost the average residential customer about $12 a year, increasing the typical water bill by about 4.5 percent. Larger commercial and industrial users would have seen increases ranging from less than 1 percent to 5 percent; those with the biggest intake pipes would have paid as much as $3,600 a year.

Many water lines are in urgent need of attention. Other pressing tasks include rebuilding the Bee Tree Water Treatment Plant to get it back in operation and creating a system of looped mains, so that a single break won’t leave major service areas, such as West Asheville/Candler, high and dry. Hanks, moreover, argues that delaying this infrastructure work will cost more in the long run, considering all the water lost to leaks and all the money spent on temporary fixes.

His viewpoint wound up carrying the day when Ramsey (who’d been putting up hay on his Fairview dairy farm) broke a 3-3 tie via conference call, joining Authority Chairman Tate and Larry Young (both Henderson County appointees) and Asheville Mayor Charles Worley in voting for a budget that included the new fee.

Nonetheless, the unlikely threesome of dissenters — Brian Peterson (Asheville), Ed Metz (Buncombe County) and Winston Pulliam (at large) — spelled trouble for the new charge, which, as part of the Water Authority budget, would have to be approved by the city and both counties. Metz (a lumberyard owner) and Pulliam (a commercial-real-estate developer) are members of the Council of Independent Business Owners (CIBO), a politically active pro-development group that lobbies hard to get its members appointed to local boards. Fobes and other local environmentalists lament the group’s influence on local governments and especially the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, whose pro-growth majority she accuses of “lacking balance” (i.e., supporting economic development at the expense of the environment).

Peterson, on the other hand — long a staunch defender of single-family, residential neighborhoods — is well known for his opposition to controversial commercial-development projects, whether Wal-Marts on the suburban fringe (which he has opposed several times) or the kind of high-density, mixed-use infill championed by smart-growth planners and environmentalists. So it was unusual, to say the least, that these three should find themselves together on the losing end of a vote.

Metz’s and Pulliam’s comments echoed the position of CIBO, whose board had come out against the capital-improvements charge, citing complaints about chronic rate increases that it said have hindered economic development. Not surprisingly, Peterson struck a different note, arguing that the people hit hardest by the charge would be poorer residential users — the very folks already most disadvantaged by basic structural problems with the Authority. One such bugbear, he said, is an unusual provision of the 1987 Supplemental Water Agreement that gives 5 percent of water revenues to Asheville and 2.5 percent to Buncombe County (a 2-1 ratio corresponding to the numbers of Authority customers within and outside the Asheville city limits). Former Asheville mayoral candidate Mickey Mahaffey and other local water watchers have long attacked these payments as a kind of regressive tax transfer that increases water bills (paid by rich and poor in roughly equal measure) so as to keep real-estate taxes (which are based on property value) low. Justifying his vote against the Water Authority budget, Peterson argued that this and other structural issues could not be ignored forever.

It was in this context that Ramsey e-mailed his fellow county commissioners on May 16. “I supported the charge because we must replace our crumbling infrastructure at some point,” wrote Ramsey. “The process of modernizing our water lines will take many decades of capital spending to address the deep hole we are in. Also there was not a rate increase last year. But I do agree with Councilman Peterson that we must address the structural problems with the Authority.”

Since his election in 2000, Ramsey has surprised many by taking the lead in seeking compromises with Asheville on water issues. (He has also annoyed some commissioners, who say Ramsey doesn’t consult with them about his proposals.) Last summer, for instance, after one-on-one discussions with several City Council members, Ramsey told Xpress that he was willing to consider charging Water Authority customers outside the city limits more, though he said the differential would have to be something “reasonable,” which he defined as about 20 percent.

In his May 16 e-mail, Ramsey outlined a new proposal under which Asheville would lease the water infrastructure to a new, independent Water Authority in exchange for the 2.5 percent of water revenues that now goes to Buncombe County. The rates would still be uniform on both sides of the city line, and the number of city and county appointees to the Authority board wouldn’t change. But the Water Department director would answer to the Authority, rather than the Asheville city manager. As part of the agreement, the various city-owned but county-managed recreational facilities would revert to city administration, unless the city transferred the properties “in fee simple absolute to the County.” Ramsey also wrote that “within one year … there will be a merger of MSD [the Metropolitan Sewerage District] with the Independent Water Authority.”

Among the advantages of an independent Authority, noted Ramsey, would be a “streamlined management structure,” avoidance of “nonbetterment costs” (substantial charges incurred when water lines are moved to accommodate road projects), and greater operating efficiencies (due to the merger with MSD). And for Asheville, there would be an additional half a million dollars a year in the kitty.

“The disadvantages (depending on your perspective),” wrote Ramsey, “are the County would forego $500K/year in revenue in difficult budget times and the City Council could potentially lose some control since the City Manager would no longer appoint the Director.” Ramsey also noted (displaying a flair for understatement) that “there are several details probably left to be worked out.”

At the Board of Commissioners meeting just a few days later (May 20), Brian Peterson praised Ramsey’s proposal as a good start (albeit one needing further study) and urged the board to sort out the structural and political issues before approving any new fee. CIBO Executive Director Mike Plemmons likewise expressed opposition to the capital-improvements charge, and commissioners Patsy Keever and Bill Stanley both lamented that the talk of funding much-needed maintenance seemed to resurface every year without the repairs ever getting done. In the end, even Ramsey spoke against approving the fee.

By refusing to take a vote on the Water Authority’s budget, the commissioners in effect forced the Authority to produce a new one — absent the capital-improvements charge. And the commissioners’ unanimity across factional lines made it very much a statement of the county’s overall position. Commissioner David Gantt, for example, spoke about what he called a “lack of vision and leadership,” though he took pains to note that he wasn’t aiming his criticism specifically at Hanks.

The Board of Commissioners meeting also marked a changing of the guard. Ramsey resigned from the Water Authority board, with Stanley taking his place; and Keever replaced Vonna Cloninger, who’d left in April after writing a letter to the Buncombe commissioners citing her frustration over the Authority’s “inability to be a true authority and the city coming across as the water owners.” Keever later told Xpress that she’d decided to join the Authority “to put my time where my mouth is.”

And whether or not the commissioners’ de facto decision to once again postpone funding maintenance actually leads to serious talks aimed at restructuring the Authority, some water watchers see the county’s maneuver as bringing greater urgency to the debate over the agency’s future.

Smelling blood

After a special June 5 Water Authority meeting held to pass a retooled budget, Asheville Mayor Charles Worley said the new budget “doesn’t preclude” the different sides finding some common ground on maintenance funding over the coming months that would allow them to rewrite the budget and put the money back in.

But so far, there’s been no indication that the various parties are even talking. Instead, Buncombe County commissioners and Asheville City Council members have been focused on their own budget battles. Nonetheless, Council’s recent closed-door meeting (held to discuss Jim Westbrook’s future after a majority of Council members had said the city manager’s proposed budget for Asheville failed to reflect their stated priorities) caught the attention of some water watchdogs.

To many proponents of a true regional Authority, Westbrook is the arch villain. That view was amply in evidence at a July 7 “teach-in” on the water agreements organized by Hazel Fobes and moderated by Nelda Holder, president of the Asheville/Buncombe League of Women Voters. Jack Tate, one of two featured speakers, recounted a lengthy saga of Henderson County’s alleged abuse at the hands of Asheville water negotiators, whom he described as “a bunch of liars and thieves” from a “tar-baby” city. “Those who said, ‘Don’t trust Jim Westbrook’ have been proven right,” Tate declared.

As evidence of Asheville’s refusal to live up to its commitments, Tate cited both the city’s refusal to engage in serious talks on creating a regional Authority and Asheville’s “stalling” on building a water line to serve American Freightways in northern Henderson County (which he specifically blamed on Westbrook). By reneging on its commitments, argued Tate, Asheville is hampering its ability to work with its neighbors on important regional issues. And the instability and controversy surrounding the Authority, he noted, also make it impossible to get favorable rates on bonds to fund water-system projects — a predicament explained by Westbrook himself at the Water Authority’s June 5 meeting.)

In Tate’s view, the situation might improve if Westbrook were out of the picture. “I’ve been told by a number of people that Mayor Worley is in favor of a true regional water authority,” Tate explained. “But what he says in private and does in public are very different. He’s under the bosslike control of the city manager.”

At the water forum (held at the YWCA in Asheville), Black Mountain resident Bob Gunn bemoaned that progress is “being stymied by a non-elected official acting in an imperial manner.” Gunn asked Tom Sobol, the other featured speaker at the event, “Is there any way to communicate with [Asheville’s] elected officials about [removing Westbrook]?” Sobol, a former Buncombe County Board of Commissioners chairman who served three terms on the Authority, replied — rather ominously — that, based on what he’d heard, “the first step has been taken.”

Westbrook declined to comment on these allegations, but he has not been without defenders. In an interview with Xpress last August, for example, former Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick said, “There were certain things implied during Water Authority meetings about our city manager that were totally untrue.” Sitnick went on to say that Henderson County had actually been at fault for the American Freightways delays and that Asheville staff had gotten a bad rap only because Bill Moyer, then chairman of the Henderson County Board of Commissioners, had repeated his accusations so often. “When you say it enough times, people begin to believe it,” Sitnick observed.

Asheville City Council Member Jim Ellis also defends Westbrook, saying he finds it lamentable that “Chairman Tate feels he must attack a non-elected official.” To Ellis, most of the criticisms of Asheville by Henderson County officials represent politically motivated bashing of the nearby big city.

Water seeks its own level

Whatever one’s feelings about Asheville’s city manager, there are clearly larger issues at play.

Sitnick, for example, has voiced serious reservations about the kind of regionalism created by the water agreements. “Quite frankly,” she said last August, “the thing to remember is that while regionalism is great, it’s only great if it serves everybody equally.” In particular, said Sitnick, the Sullivan Act is grossly unfair to the city, because it takes away a basic municipal lever for controlling development and annexation.

A section in the draft version of Asheville’s 2025 Plan, meanwhile, reveals that the city Planning and Development Department has its own qualms about the Water Authority’s policies.

“In many cases, sprawl development has been promoted by government decisions to extend streets and highways, water and sewer lines, and other public infrastructure into the countryside to support or attract new development,” the plan observes.

“More often than not, this public investment fails to pay for itself, creating a development pattern that is expensive to serve, requires continual maintenance of the infrastructure and natural environment to support it (and is therefore not sustainable), and ultimately becomes inconvenient for residents and employees.

“A local example can be found in the effects of the policy decisions of the Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson Counties. These policies have led to the extension of water lines to areas that are hard to serve due to their distance from the main sources of water distribution, to developments that are very low density in nature and therefore expensive to serve on a per-customer basis, and to relatively undeveloped areas in an attempt to attract new development to those areas. Partially as a result of these policies, the Water Authority provides the most expensive water in the state.”

And Ellis and other denizens of Asheville City Hall point to the Authority’s decision to run a water line to American Freightways, calling it a boondoggle that could serve as the poster child for dumb growth. Rather than installing a simple tap from a main transmission line, as Asheville had suggested, the Authority bowed to pressure from Henderson County and voted to put in a 12-inch line (much larger than most water lines).

“The line cost $80,000 to build and serves one customer with monthly revenues of $11 per month,” explained Mayor Worley in an op-ed piece in the Hendersonville Times-News. “Because it is a dead end line, it requires flushing every two weeks for safety and health purposes and this costs over $2,000 per month and uses one and one-half million gallons of water each month.”

By its very nature, sprawl drives up the price of water, because the per-customer cost of infrastructure increases as development extends into less-populated areas. But in Asheville and Buncombe County, the lay of the land exaggerates these difficulties. From the North Fork and Bee Tree plants, water runs downhill to Asheville. (This isn’t true at the Mills River plant, where the water starts out at lower altitude.) But then, as the water mains leave the city center, they require pumping stations to move the water through a mountainous topography that tends upward.

For an infill project downtown, where an extensive network of lines is already in place and pumps aren’t needed because the existing water pressure is already high, the Authority would incur no monthly electrical charges and very few maintenance costs of any kind over the first few decades of a building’s existence.

But the costs will be much higher for a project like Walnut Cove, a gated community being built in Avery’s Creek next to Pisgah National Forest in southern Buncombe County. There, David Hanks explains, pumping the water uphill will use a lot of electricity (the biggest single chunk of the Authority’s budget). Much more maintenance will probably be needed as well. The pumps and tanks will probably need replacing every 10 years or so, and the lines (which will be subject to greater fluctuations in pressure) will almost surely break sooner.

Of course, if this were some other part of North Carolina, Walnut Cove residents would pay more for their water, but the Sullivan Act and the water agreements ensure that they won’t. According to How Much Does Clean Water Cost, a 2002 N.C. League of Municipalities survey of water rates, the vast majority of Tar Heel cities charge outside users more. Nearly half (49.3 percent) charge at least twice as much. And the one form of rate differential that the Regional Water Authority does allow — steep discounts for commercial users — places the rate structure even farther from the norm.

A residential user of 10,000 gallons a month in Asheville pays the highest rates among all of North Carolina’s biggest cities. But a commercial user of 100,000 gallons outside the city limits pays the third-cheapest rates in the state.

On average, water departments in North Carolina’s 21 other cities with populations over 25,000 would charge that out-of-town commercial user nearly 14 times as much as that in-town residential user. But in Buncombe County, a commercial user of 100,000 gallons is charged less than four times as much as an Asheville residential user of 10,000 gallons. To match the ratio in the remainder of the state, the city residential user’s bill would have to drop from $51.31 to $13.58 (or, conversely, the county commercial user’s bill would have to rise from $186.29 to $703.71).

Those pushing for a true regional water authority cite the savings it would supposedly reap by not having to pay Department of Transportation nonbetterment charges. (That was one of the principal selling points of Ramsey’s plan, for instance.) Hanks, however, disputes this argument. The state road projects currently scheduled for this area, he says, will affect only water lines for which improvements have already been planned. Thus, they will be considered “betterment costs” rather than nonbetterment costs, and a true authority would still have to pay them.

If Hanks is right — and if Buncombe County is serious about pushing for an independent water authority — then it might have to find some other way to get the city’s attention. Jim Ellis, for one, suggests that the city would prick up its ears if the county offered to repeal the Sullivan Act, thus opening the door to city/county rate differentials.

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