Short and bittersweet

At its Aug. 17 meeting, the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson heard a few brief updates from consultants and city staff. At one point amid these reports, they voted unanimously, and without much ado, to join the city in funding larger lines for a low-pressure area of West Asheville. And then, just like that, it was over. “Seventeen minutes,” said Authority Chairman Bill Lapsley, checking his watch. “That’s a rarity.”

In fact, both the brevity and lack of drama were in keeping with a well-established boom-and-bust cycle of tension in local water politics, which starts out in low gear in late summer and rises to a crescendo the following May and June, when the Authority passes a budget and seeks approval from Asheville and Buncombe County. Over each of the last two budget cycles, this annual plot line has ended with Buncombe County vetoing new meter fees to pay for infrastructure work and with both the Authority and Asheville’s Water Resources Department (which administers the system) subsequently struggling to make ends meet while the infrastructure continues to crumble.

Earlier this year, however, things appeared to have shifted. David Hanks, Asheville’s long-running interim water-resources director, had teamed up with staffers from the consulting firm Brown and Caldwell; together, they painstakingly forged a consensus in support of new fees, based on the idea that applying asset-management principles to the scheduling of infrastructure replacement and refurbishment would reduce long-term costs. In large part, the campaign was designed to convince skeptics in the business community and on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, which had derailed similar fees the year before. If you don’t pay it now, the argument ran, you’ll pay much more later.

But that consensus unraveled on May 25, when the city passed a resolution declaring its intention to terminate the Water Agreement with Buncombe County — and, by extension, the Water Authority itself — in one year’s time. The city explained the move as a way to take back control over both the water infrastructure (which it owns) and the rate structure (the agreement expressly forbids higher rates for non-city residents). In the aftermath, the Buncombe County commissioners once again balked at the idea of imposing new fees, arguing that if the city does pull out of the Water Agreement, water charges for county residents outside the city will surely rise dramatically.

That recent turn of events, both in its disruption of Authority maintenance plans and in the shadow it cast over the Authority’s future, featured prominently in the tone and content of what was discussed at the Aug. 17 meeting. Consultant Richard Carrier, for instance, praised Water Resources staff for having made headway in drawing up asset plans and prioritizing preventive maintenance. And on the “revenue protection side,” he noted that all the large meters in the system had been fitted for on-site testing. But Carrier also explained that work on the North Fork and Bee Tree water-treatment plants, which was to have been the first big step in actually refurbishing the infrastructure, has now been postponed until next year.

On another note, Hanks reported that Jacob Holm Industries has decided to build a plant in Enka to manufacture nonwoven roll goods. The move will bring about 70 industrial jobs to the area paying roughly $13 to $17 an hour. The Authority had previously voted to offer the Danish company about $100,000 in incentives to locate the facility here. A waived development fee accounts for about $60,000 of the package, and most of the remainder will cover the cost of installing a prefab meter pit. The Authority first adopted a policy of offering incentives to relocating industry in the winter of 2003; this is the first case of a company taking them up on their offer.

Hanks also reported that the city had agreed to use $149,440 in Community Development Block Grant funds to help pay for a construction project in an area of West Asheville that includes portions of Montana Avenue, Montana Circle, Richmond Avenue, Indiana Avenue and Alabama Avenue.

“We try to look at the big picture,” said Hanks, explaining why city staff had homed in on this area.

The project involves replacing sections of 2-inch and smaller lines beneath those streets with 6-inch lines and installing fire hydrants. The neighborhood, noted Hanks, includes several large, empty or subdividable lots well suited for building affordable housing. But unless the lines are replaced, the city will be unable to provide water service to any new homes built there. The Authority voted unanimously to accept the grant and to fund the remainder of the project (estimated at $195,157) from its “internal construction crew” budget.

Both the plant relocation and the construction project highlight the ways water policy affects development. In large part, city Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford told Xpress, this is what’s driving the city’s move to break free of the Water Authority. By gaining control over its water infrastructure and rates, the city hopes to create more orderly and efficient growth patterns and to increase its tax base, both by steering development inward and by leveraging water-line extensions and rate differentials to encourage voluntary annexation.

Yet the Water Agreement also includes items that are entirely unrelated to water but of great economic benefit to the city, such as the county’s paying for the upkeep of Aston Park and McCormick Field, and reimbursing the city (to the tune of roughly $1.8 million per year) to cover the portion of city residents’ property taxes that goes to the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department (because the Asheville Police Department handles law enforcement within the city limits).

These and other aspects of the notoriously convoluted agreement give the county significant leverage of its own in negotiations with the city. As a result, the divorce arrangement may end up stipulating that any water-rate differentials would have to be phased in slowly over many years.

[Jonathan Barnard, a freelance translator and writer, lives in West Asheville.]

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