Under pressure: Amid legal maneuvering, Dundas sets water department’s course

Jade Dundas, the city's new water resources director, brings a steady hand to a department with an uncertain future. Photo by Virginia Daffron

Jade Dundas is no stranger to uncertainty. Having worked with municipal water systems for more than 20 years, he’s learned the hard way that no amount of technical know-how can predict exactly when and where the next leak might occur.

But as the legal battle for control of Asheville’s water system plays out in the courts, Dundas, who came on board as the city’s new water resources director in July, must contend with a different kind of uncertainty.

On Nov. 25, the N.C. Supreme Court granted the city a temporary stay of enforcement of an October Court of Appeals decision. The stay indefinitely halts the state-mandated transfer of the city’s water system to the Metropolitan Sewerage District of Buncombe County, which the appeals court had upheld.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is considering whether it will hear Asheville’s latest petition, filed Nov. 24. City Attorney Robin Currin says it’s “impossible to predict” when the court will announce its decision.

Who’s in charge?

Asheville’s legal team is arguing that the Legislature’s transfer of the system is an unconstitutional taking of property without compensation. The city also asserts that the state constitution gives local governments control of certain functions related to health and sanitation.

Also on Nov. 25, the International Municipal Lawyers Association asked permission to file a friend of the court brief in the case. “A chief concern of municipalities is providing the infrastructure and public services that are essential to the health, safety and welfare of local citizens,” the association wrote. “Among these essential services is the provision of clean, abundant and affordable water.” Currin says other entities have also expressed interest in filing documents that support Asheville’s arguments.

With about 150 employees and an annual operating budget of over $35 million, the Water Resources Department serves more than 124,000 customers in Buncombe and Henderson counties. Asked how he manages a task of that magnitude in the face of such uncertainty about the ownership of the resource, however, Dundas seems unruffled. “Our responsibility is to deliver the water to meet our system’s daily requirements, and that’s what we concentrate on every day,” the Kansas native says simply.

A full plate

Whatever the future may hold, the department is moving ahead with plans for maintaining and improving the water system. On Nov. 17, City Council approved $7.6 million to replace water mains in several older residential areas and $2 million to renovate a recently purchased office and warehouse building at 200 Bingham Road.

Once those renovations are complete, the water maintenance and meter service divisions will move to Bingham Road. A city-owned brick building adjacent to the current offices of those divisions at 172 S. Charlotte St. will be leased to White Labs, which provides yeast and related supplies to breweries, wineries and distilleries.

Depending on the results of a needs analysis, the department’s customer service group, now located in City Hall, may move to the new building as well, notes Dundas.

Meanwhile, he also oversees a geographic information systems division that’s responsible for continually updating water system maps and plans, and an engineering division with offices in the city’s Development Services Center at 161 S. Charlotte St.

 Up through the ranks

Dundas, his wife and their three children moved to Asheville this summer from Sioux City, Iowa, where he’d served as assistant city manager and public works director since 2010. For two years before that, he was Sioux City’s utilities director. Dundas started his career installing and replacing meters for the city of Wichita, Kan. Over the course of 14 years, he worked his way up the ranks, eventually serving as that city’s utilities director.

These days, though, “I don’t go in the hole anymore,” he says with a laugh.

Dundas earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and environmental sciences from Kansas State University and a master’s in business administration from Wichita State University.

It doesn’t flow uphill

The biggest differences between Asheville’s water system and those in the Midwest, says Dundas, are all about topography. Because of our mountainous terrain, our water system must withstand far greater pressures than systems in the flatlands. We also have more feet of pipe per person, he explains. Despite those challenges, though, Asheville’s Water Resources Department works hard to maintain cost-effectiveness, he says, to keep water rates comparable to those in other cities.

As for the quality, “This is by far the best water that I’ve been responsible for, because the source is so pristine.”

And unlike many communities, Asheville also has an ample supply of water. Although the number of customer accounts has increased significantly in recent years, overall water usage has remained about the same. Many of the industrial users that were the system’s biggest customers have left the area over the past two decades.

But what about our burgeoning beer industry?

“Breweries don’t use as much water as you might imagine,” says Dundas. Other industries, he continues, use more water for things like cooling, producing steam or cleaning, even though those processes aren’t evident in the finished product. Low-flow plumbing fixtures and other conservation measures have also helped reduce demand, he adds.

And though his hardworking customer service employees do field their share of complaints, Dundas says he’s learned another surprising thing about Asheville: Customers here often call in to thank the department for doing a good job or to praise the crews’ courtesy and considerateness. “It’s reassuring and refreshing,” says Dundas.

Down the road

Despite the system’s uncertain future, Dundas says he’s not drawing up contingency plans just yet. “Right now, we’re focused on the appeals process,” he explains. The city’s latest legal filing cites Dundas’ estimate that a transfer would take “at least a year.”

Issues that would need to be resolved include:

  • Transferring the contracts of the department’s 148 employees.
  • Nontransferrable federal and state health-and-safety certifications.
  • Transferring the financial, accounting and information technology systems.
  • Training new employees.
  • The city’s water-related bond debt, which is financed by system revenues.

Rather than worrying about what may come, however, Dundas and his team are looking ahead to a major service upgrade for the Fairview area. The project, which will improve water pressure and support recent growth in the area, will follow U. S. Highway 74.

Also in the works are improvements to the dam, equipment and structures at the North Fork Reservoir. Together, these projects will cost an estimated $40 million, to be financed by yet-to-be-issued revenue bonds.

Meanwhile, on the customer service front, Dundas is working with the engineering staff to reduce the turnaround time when someone applies for water service. To that end, the department also plans to add another staff position.

And despite these challenges, Dundas says he’s happy to be here. “This is a unique situation, working in and supporting the demands of a thriving and growing community,” he points out. Come what may, the steady Midwesterner expects to keep delivering nearly 20 million gallons of water a day to residents and businesses in Asheville and beyond.


Author’s note:

On the same day this article went to press in our print edition (Dec. 7), the State of North Carolina filed “A motion to dismiss the City of Asheville’s purported appeal based upon alleged constitutional questions & the State’s response in opposition to the City’s petition for discretionary review.”



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About Virginia Daffron
Managing editor, lover of mountains, native of WNC. Follow me @virginiadaffron

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53 thoughts on “Under pressure: Amid legal maneuvering, Dundas sets water department’s course

  1. Asheville’s Continued Misinformation Campaign

    Mountain Xpress has finally broken the extended news black-out of the failing Asheville water lawsuit. But there is a lot of misinformation and a lot is missing, like quotes from MSD. The article entitled “Under Pressure” states that the water system has an uncertain future. The future of the water system is far from uncertain. No matter what happens in court, the city is certain to lose the water system..

    Read more: http://timpeck.blogspot.com/2015/12/ashevilles-continued-misinformation.html

    • Virginia Daffron

      Tim, your point about the MSD perspective being important is well-taken, though I had conceived of this article mostly as a profile of the city’s new water resources director. I hope to talk with someone at the MSD soon.

      Perhaps we could agree that there is uncertainty about the timeline of future events regarding the water system.

      • Yes, I would agree that the timeline is uncertain. But not the result. That much at least is certain. The last time Asheville took an adverse ruling on the water system to the Supreme Court, it took about four months for it to be dismissed.

      • bsummers

        Mr. Peck doesn’t know how to agree, he only dictates the truth according to him. Unfortunately, this ‘truth’ doesn’t always comport with the facts.

        Never mind that the NC Supreme Court hasn’t decided the case yet – Mr. Peck has handed down the word.

      • Peter Robbins

        Point of information, Mr. Peck: It would not have been proper for a stay pending appeal to be granted if the city had no possible chance of success on the merits. But, in any event, it would be well to recall the reason why Lincoln thought the hen was the wisest of all the animals — she does not cackle until she has the egg.

        • bsummers

          Save your breath, Mr. Robbins. The Supreme Court has been ordered to stand down. Supreme Peck has jurisdiction to rule on this one.

        • ” It would not have been proper for a stay pending appeal to be granted if the city had no possible chance of success on the merits”

          Setting aside the fact the the City’s case before the Supreme Court has no merit, amply shown in the State’s Motion to Dismiss and contained in the perfectly readable post linked above, IT MATTERS NOT what the outcome is in court: Asheville will lose the water system. The City knows this and threatens to drag its feet, saying it will take months, even up to a year, to make the inevitable transfer, when they well know transfer of the water system will take place virtually overnight as soon as the court dismisses the case presently before them.

          Brian Turner on the lost water system:

          • ” It would not have been proper for a stay pending appeal to be granted if the city had no possible chance of success on the merits”

            It is entirely proper that the court would grant a temporary stay and is merely a judicial formality. It happens all the time.

            And do recall that the City has a poor track record predicting outcomes in court. http://pbs.twimg.com/media/CGB94PZUIAAS6Pj.png

          • “I stand uncorrected.”

            Stand in whichever way pleases you. The facts won’t change depending on how you see yourself standing.

            The fact remains that it is entirely proper to issue a stay pending a matter being taken up by the court. You will find this to be the case upon the slightest research. When the court does take up the matter, the result will be a summary dismissal. If the court were to agree to hear the case, it would only be to slam the door shut with a final rebuke. Either way, the city loses.

            Even if the City wins, it will lose. Legislators will simply re-write the law taking into account the court’s opinion (thank you very much). But everybody knew this. Well, almost everybody.

          • Peter Robbins

            I feel cheated. He forgot to say “Kase Kaaalowsed.”

          • “I feel cheated. He forgot to say ‘Kase Kaaalowsed.'”

            I’m sorry, Mr. Robbins, is that comment intended to be supportive of some seemingly elusive counter-argument?

          • Peter Robbins

            No. I’m confident that I need no counter-argument to carry my original points. The first, as I said, stands unrebutted. And the second (the Lincoln quote) just keeps looking better and better. But I’m glad we could end on such a harmonious note. That doesn’t always happen around here.

          • “I’m confident that I need no counter-argument”

            Then we are agreed that you see no need to offer a counter-argument, much less formulate one. You may retire to your corner.

            “The first, as I said, stands unrebutted.”

            The rebuttal is that the City’s case does not need to have merit for the court to do it the courtesy of granting a stay. It’s a common practice in jurisprudence. A temporary stay in no way signifies merit or lack thereof.

            “And the second (the Lincoln quote) just keeps looking better”

            Mr. Robbins, your stubbornness is only exceeded by word count. As I plainly said in my original post above, “The future of the water system is far from uncertain. No matter what happens in court, the city is certain to lose the water system.” To characterize this well-known inevitability as “cackling prior to having the egg” is misplaced. Believe me, sir, the egg is well in hand.

          • bsummers

            “well-known inevitability” = wishful thinking, bluster, monkey-throwing-dirt-in-the-air, etc.

            It’s not over til it’s over.

      • Peter Robbins

        Oh. I didn’t know that courts in North Carolina granted preliminary equitable relief as a courtesy to polite litigants. I thought they used some kind of standard or test. Well, live and learn.

        • Peter Robbins

          Oh, and as I recall, the standard test — the one that I thought every court in the country has used for years — has four parts, the first of which mentions legal merits. I looked on the city’s application for a stay — the one on the SaveOurWater website — and, whoddathunkit, the very first point is about the seriousness of the legal question. Apparently, I’m not the only one who needs schooling, Mr. Peck.

      • Peter Robbins

        Ditto. I do see your point about respiratory conservation now. Next time, I’ll listen better.

  2. Brian Turner (November 12, 2015): “If the city is successful, Senators Apodaca and Representative McGrady have already said that they will file new legislation to fix the problem that was with the old legislation that caused it to be overturned, but that the Asheville system will become a regional system.”

    Chuck McGrady (June 9, 2014): “Remember I said that no matter who won there would be an appeal. Moreover, there are more than one way to skin a cat.”

    Tim Peck (December 10, 2015): “No matter what happens in court, the city is certain to lose the water system.”

      • I see, Mr. Robbins, you’re still struggling mightily to come up with an argument. And we’re all impressed. You can stop thinking now.

        • Peter Robbins

          You have beaten me to the ironic punch. I cannot improve on such a gift.

      • bsummers

        Don’t you just love someone who quotes himself as if he were a credible source?

        • Peter Robbins

          As the lawyers say, when your opponent is self-destructing, don’t interrupt.

          (BTW, thanks for not insisting on the apology that a better man would have already given for certain of my comments on an earlier thread some time ago. In the heat of a political campaign, even sweet dispositions get tested.)

          • bsummers

            Wounds from intramural fights heal faster. There’s bigger fish to fry.

          • Peter Robbins

            Indeed, sir. And mark well: a grudging apology is the only kind on whose sincerity one can rely.

  3. Indeed. Well. We surely have all benefited from your contribution to this important discussion. Please do come again and once more edify with your endless font of wisdom.

    Breathlessly awaiting your next syllable,

    Yours Truly

    • Peter Robbins

      Once again, you accept my sword with such grace it almost doesn’t feel like surrender.

      • Once again, no one has any idea what you’re talking about. Please continue. If only for the amusement. What else is there?

        • bsummers

          Oh I don’t know… how about fully quoting people? You trimmed Brian Turner’s quote up there. After “…the Asheville system will become a regional system”, he said “That’s their goal.”

          “Goal.” Sometimes people don’t hit the goal. You should know all about that.

        • Peter Robbins

          No one understands? I’ll bet some people get it. Are you sure you’re on speaking terms with everyone?

  4. “I’ll bet some people get it.”

    Get what?! Do you yourself have any idea what you’re rambling on about at this point? Are you still suffering from a want of argument? How about you and that one other guy who “gets it” lengthen this thread with your sage and pregnant meanings. We are struggling to add up the sum total of your contribution. So far? ZIP.

  5. Oh, ho. Haha. I learn something with your every utterance. Good job, Mr. Robbins. I hope the next time you chime in on a topic of importance to readers you can bring to you commentary the same coherence you have established with this one. The revelations are endless.

      • Peter Robbins

        Maybe he limits himself to topics — such as law and the future — on which he has special expertise.

        • bsummers

          He doesn’t want to admit that he’s just a beard for hire, or let it be known how the good folks at WPVM operate. That piece supposedly explaining why a long-running show by and about veterans was unceremoniously pulled from the schedule was almost certainly written by Davyne Dial. She must have been too embarrassed to put her name on it. I don’t blame her.

          • Peter Robbins

            And look! The blog post you mention was painstakingly edited by someone to create an impression different from the one conveyed by the original text. See http://mountainx.com/opinion/letter-writer-meeting-about-wpvm-invites-discussion/. Sort of like the Brian Turner passage quoted above. Everything ties together.

            I’d ask Mr. Peck to add this to his tally of my so-far-negligible contributions to this thread, but that would be cheating. The credit really belongs to one of his smarter and more eagle-eyed critics. I’m just the messenger. Still, after the bruising I’ve just taken for the feebleness of my efforts to date, it’s good to see that someone has been willing to go the extra mile to satisfy our friend’s need for drama.

    • bsummers

      Your credibility is zero. You won’t even say who actually writes the things you post on your blog under your own name.

  6. Who Owns WNC’s Water
    Oct. 22, 2015

    John Ellison: “Chuck, I wanted you to look into your legislative crystal ball for us and ponder…if by some chance the State Supreme Court decides this law is a ‘no go’, what might be the next step in the General Assembly a proposed transfer?”

    Chuck McGrady: “There are other ways to skin a cat. There are other ways to draft that legislation, depending on what the NC Supreme Court says, to make sure we do things constitutionally.”
    Video: bit.ly/1NTqhKe

    • bsummers

      You haven’t once cited anything that “proves” your claim that it’s certain that the City will lose the water system. Only that people like Chuck are obsessed with seizing Asheville’s infrastructure from the next County over, and that people like you are clapping with vindictive glee over Asheville losing something.

      It was bad enough when there were local legislators Moffitt and Ramsey plausibly claiming that they were acting in the interest of their constituents. But they both lost their seats, in large part because of the water issue (and because you were “helping” with PR). Where does Henderson County get off pledging to keep fighting to grab control of Asheville/Buncombe’s water?

      • Peter Robbins

        And why would Republican legislators elsewhere in the state cling to a result that gains their constituents nothing and cost their party two seats in the House? Would this be another of those courteous formalities that governs the fate of mortals in the land governed by Supreme Peck?

  7. Don’t these people talk to each other?

    Jade Dundas, Water Resources Director, City of Asheville:
    “Issues that would need to be resolved include:
    -Transferring the contracts of the department’s 148 employees.
    -Nontransferrable federal and state health-and-safety certifications.
    -Transferring the financial, accounting and information technology systems.
    -Training new employees.
    -The city’s water-related bond debt, which is financed by system revenues.”

    Esther Manheimer, Mayor, City of Asheville:
    “To me a corporate transfer doesn’t necessarily mean anything about the experience our city will have with this company. It may just mean a change in ownership. It may not mean a change in the employees or the number of employees they plan to hire or their agreements. It may have no implications in terms of their agreements with the city.”

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