Is there an unstated agenda in Raleigh to privatize Asheville’s water system? Recent developments give reason for real concern.
Last May, freshman Rep. Tim Moffitt of Asheville stunned many of his newly acquired constituents by abruptly introducing a bill in Raleigh stripping the city of its water system and handing it over to the non-elected, county-dominated Metropolitan Sewerage District. After three weeks of controversy, Moffitt changed the legislation to a study bill, sending the issue to a small committee of state representatives who would then consider whether to: do nothing, pursue Moffitt's original plan or come up with some other alternative. At this writing, the committee’s makeup has been announced, the first hearings have been scheduled, other processes have been set in motion — and we should be more concerned than ever about the implications for Asheville's water system.
In August, the American Legislative Exchange Council held its annual conference in New Orleans. The group, whose members are state legislators and industry reps, is a clearing-house for legislation promoting a conservative, free-market agenda. Powerful business interests write model bills which member legislators then introduce in their respective assemblies.
The New Orleans conference featured panel discussions on privatizing public infrastructure — including water utilities. Lobbyists for private water companies were invited to speak, but the public and the press were barred at the door. Every member of the soon-to-be-formed Metropolitan Sewerage/Water System Committee was there, including Moffitt, the committee’s chair.
Since then — and despite his claims that he’s never considered privatizing Asheville's water system — Moffitt has also become co-chair of the Legislature’s Select Committee on Public-Private Partnerships. PPP, as it's sometimes called, is a relatively new term that covers a range of private involvement, including outright ownership and management of formerly publicly owned infrastructure: in other words, privatization. The committee’s first hearing, held Dec. 12 in Raleigh, included a briefing on the various ways N.C. municipalities could privatize their water systems.
A majority of Moffitt’s water committee members — the very group that could determine the future of Asheville's drinking water — are also on his PPP committee, raising further questions about the real agenda behind the “study bill.”
Why is the prospect of privatizing water such a grave concern? Simply put, private companies are ultimately accountable to their shareholders, not their customers — a frightening dynamic when we’re talking about things like access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. A growing number of North Carolinians already feel the social and economic impacts of privatization, as companies like Aqua NC buy water systems across the state — often small, troubled ones in desperate need of infrastructure improvements. These companies generally charge much higher rates than public utilities while offering poor and inaccessible customer service.
And in many cases, infrastructure and water quality stay the same or get worse. Residents of the Country Valley Mobile Home Park near Hickory, for example, pay more than $100 a month for water and sewer service even though they can’t drink the water: Metals and toxic organic compounds have been detected in their community well.
So far, no N.C. municipalities have privatized their water systems, but horror stories abound from big cities in other states. Prominent examples include Atlanta, where the city wound up taking back its water system after United Water Services failed to live up to its contractual agreements, and Fairbanks, Alaska, where rate hikes and sewage backups followed privatization.
Nationwide, municipal and regional systems have seen many of the same downsides experienced by rural private water customers in N.C.: high rates, poor service and lack of accountability to customers. And that’s in addition to the irreversible loss of a public asset to private hands.
The deepening drought across the Southeast only increases the attraction of these systems for companies based outside our region that have no ties to the community except a desire to turn a profit — whether it's by selling water to other cities, to bottled-water plants or, worst case, to the impending N.C. fracking industry.
Given our local water system’s long, sometimes contentious history, it's no surprise that some want to shift control away from the city of Asheville. But what if those who will determine the system's future aren’t really interested in redressing past grievances or distributing resources more fairly but simply in taking this vital resource away from Asheville's elected officials and making it vulnerable to future privatization?
BTW, don't expect Moffitt's water committee to ever use the word “privatization” within hearing of those city and county residents who’ll be profoundly affected by these legislators’ decision. If that word ever surfaces, it will likely be when Moffitt is wearing his other hat — in a room full of lobbyists.
We urge you to contact your state representative and tell them you want Asheville to retain control of its drinking water.
— Barry Summers is a local public-interest activist. Katie Hicks is assistant director of Clean Water for North Carolina (http://www.cwfnc.org).