“I’ll be able to send out a lot of nice letters to tell people of your actions tomorrow.”
— City Manager Gary Jackson
Asheville’s water system continues to be a bugaboo for City Council. At their Sept. 19 work session, Council members agreed in principle to reduce the new capital-improvements fee for a handful of residential water customers and perhaps even refund the extra money they’ve already paid.
When the fee took effect July 1, most system residential customers began paying an extra $3.50 per month to help fund much-needed infrastructure improvements — projected to cost $65 million over the next seven years. But then angry e-mails began pouring in to Council members, the Water Resources Department and City Manager Gary Jackson.
The problem: The fee is based on meter size. But about 150 of the system’s 44,000 residential customers have meters bigger than the standard 5/8-inch model, according to Water Resources Director David Hanks. Most have 1-inch meters, which translates into a $48 monthly fee.
Hanks apologized for the oversight and proposed two options: a $3.50 fee for all residential customers, regardless of meter size; or slightly larger, graduated fees based on size. For example, those on a one-inch meter would pay $5 per month, while those few on 1.5-inch and 2-inch meters would pay $6 and $7, respectively. Hanks also noted that condominium owners will see some relief down the road as the department works with them to reduce their meter sizes.
Because the loss in revenue between the two options is negligible ($80,000 per year versus $77,000), most Council members said they would prefer the uniform rate.
Council member Bryan Freeborn asked Hanks why the Water Department hadn’t based the fee on consumption. Hanks said meter size is the standard approach. Consumption, he noted, may vary widely from month to month; billing based on meter size provides a predictable revenue stream for each billing cycle, making it easier to plan needed improvements.
Mayor Terry Bellamy said City Council had stated publicly that residents would pay $3.50 and should stick to that figure as a show of good faith. Other Council members mentioned that meter size had been publicized as the basis of the fee, but that it obviously had not been made clear enough to those residents who suddenly saw their water bills skyrocket.
Jackson supported the $3.50 option, saying, “I’ll be able to send out a lot of nice letters to tell people of your actions tomorrow.”
The Buncombe County Schools, however, did not fare so well: They’ll still have to pay $180,462 annually in capital-improvements fees. In a July 31 letter to Jackson, Superintendent Cliff Dodson wrote: “This is a huge impact on the budget for Buncombe County Schools. We anticipated the likelihood of some additional fee, but we had no idea it would be this high.”
But Hanks and some Council members said the county schools had known for some time that the fee was coming and about how much it would be. And though the letter didn’t directly accuse the Water Department or the city of acting in bad faith, it nonetheless didn’t sit well with some on Council. “I have a hard time swallowing their letter when no one else in their [water-customer] class has complained,” said Freeborn. Jan Davis agreed, saying, “I think there is an allegation in [the letter] I’m not real happy with.”
Council member Carl Mumpower, however, seemed more sympathetic. “Large, dramatic increases aren’t fair,” he said, adding that incremental increases would be more reasonable. “I don’t think we can backtrack [on the fee] at this point, but it’s worth looking at.” Hanks, however, reminded them that “there was lots of coverage on this by us and the media.”
Council agreed to consider at its next formal session a resolution from Council member Robin Cape to create a Sustainable Energy and Environment Advisory Committee. But Council asked her to clarify what responsibilities the nine-member panel would have. While a majority on Council seemed to support the new committee, Davis and Mumpower voiced concerns that it might overstep its authority and assume oversight and policy-making powers. Cape said such fears were unfounded, and the revised resolution would better reflect that.
“I appreciate your leadership on this, but I regret I can’t support it,” said Mumpower. “I think there is a lot of potential for misinterpretation and abuse. We don’t need another level of bureaucracy and control.”
Mandy Stone, director of the Buncombe County Department of Social Services, reported on plans to create a “crisis-stabilization facility” for those with substance-abuse and mental-health problems. Housed in a county-owned building on Biltmore Avenue, the 16-bed center would offer round-the-clock medical and pyschiatric care for people meeting the criteria for involuntary commitment. Law-enforcement personnel would be on duty full time at the locked facility, which would be designed to treat people for up to 15 days.
The county, said Stone, is also allocating $110,000 for behavioral-health staffers at the downtown Detention Center, as well as funds for substance-abuse services.
Council members lauded these efforts, saying they will help alleviate the area’s mental-health and homelessness crises.
Council also heard a progress report on the joint city/county “10-Year Plan to End Homelessness.” Coordinator Amy Sawyer said the program has already placed 33 chronically homeless people in permanent housing, and a data-collection program to accurately count and track the area’s homeless is up and running.