With a third short session convening Nov. 7, the N.C. General Assembly’s leadership has now announced a fourth: the legislators will reconvene Nov. 28-30. And in further scheduling, January is now the target date for the first meeting of the study committee that will delve into the sensitive history — and future — of the Asheville water system.
The “word on the street,” according to Madison County’s Rep. Ray Rapp, is that the original agenda for the third short session has been moved to the end of this month. That clears the previously scheduled Nov. 7 session for voting on technical corrections to the state’s redistricting maps, which won preclearance by the U.S. Justice Department on Nov. 2. And as Rep. Susan Fisher, Democrat of Buncombe County, noted by email, that means in the Nov. 28 session “anything from redistricting issues, to election law bills, to budget items, medicaid shortfall or hurricane relief could be taken up.”
Between the month’s short sessions, a meeting of the full Appropriations Committee has been set for Nov. 16, but Rapp said he doesn’t know why. “We are unsure what the agenda for that meeting will be at this time,” the House minority whip told Xpress in an email. But he did seem sure of one thing: “This is the General Assembly session that never ends, and it is disruptive to the personal, professional and local legislative schedules of the members.”
The local legislative schedule of one Buncombe County representative has just become busier. Republican Tim Moffitt is directing a study involving the sensitive topic of Asheville’s water system. Moffitt chairs the Metropolitan Sewerage/Water System subcommittee of the Legislative Research Commission, and he said by phone on Nov. 2 that the first meeting will be in January 2012, followed by a second meeting in February at which the committee plans to hear from the public.
Although the research staff has been assigned, Moffitt said, “It’s going to take them a while . . . to really get a handle on the issues that have been in dispute.” Moffitt has arranged a URL [internet] site that will launch soon as “ABH20” to share information. “Everything we come up with will go on that,” he said, adding that the public can make all the comments they want through that site. “I want to be transparent through this entire process,” Moffitt told Xpress.
Moffitt was the sponsor this session of HB 925, which calls for a study of the efficiency of potentially consolidating water and sewer services in certain metropolitan situations. Specifically, the bill addresses “large cities located entirely within a metropolitan sewerage district” (such as Asheville), and examines the premise of requiring the city to convey its water system to the larger district. The original version of the bill seemed tailored specificly to Asheville and Buncombe County and would have mandated transfer of the city of Asheville’s water system to the Buncombe County Metropolitan Sewerage District — a rancorous move in a city and county with a rancorous history of water controversy.
But the third version of Moffitt’s bill, which was passed, sets up a study process instead of a mandate. The committee’s scope includes sanitary district issues in the eastern part of the state and other “MSD-like” authorities throughout the state, he said, noting that he has no predetermined outcomes. His goal is simply “what’s best for ratepayers.” And for Asheville, that means “the water system could remain in the city; it could become independent like MSD; or [it could] become part of MSD,” Moffitt stated.
Asked if a potential state-mandated transfer of a city-owned water system to an independent authority might be a step toward water privatization — the for-profit management of water resources — Moffitt answered, “Oh, no. Privatization has never been even a consideration on my part. You’re talking about a very important part of everyone’s life. Privatization is not a consideration.
“My goal is to really, once and for all, bring to the surface the true story about our [Asheville area] water system, and make the best decision that’s in the best interest of the ratepayers,” Moffitt concluded.
Members of Moffitt’s committee include Western North Carolina’s Chuck McGrady, Republican of Henderson County — a county that shares an important portion of this area’s water history from the days of Regional Water Authority management. Others include Republicans Bill Brawley of Mecklenburg County and Tom Murry of Wake County, and Democrat William Brisson of Bladen/Cumberland counties.
Editor’s note: For some flavor of the history of Asheville water controversy, see “Water Torture” by Jonathan Barnard, March 23, 2005, Xpress.
by Nelda Holder, contributing editor