Asheville’s Water Agreement has been a problem since its inception, with a history of misunderstanding and confusion (if not deception) and use as a political football.
My own experiences include trying to find out just who paid what for water in the county, when I worked as a specialist in water quality and public participation for the Land-of-Sky Regional Council in the ’70s. I was told then by Asheville Water Department staff that the department billed all water users, but charged different rates to different districts in the county — rates evidently tied to the bonds issued to pay for lines in each area. No one, however, seemed able to give me the actual information about each district, so my question was never answered.
This was in the period leading up to the original Water Agreement in 1981. I now wonder whether the 1933 Sullivan Act — which prohibits differential water rates in the city and county — was the reason that no one wanted to discuss the different rates. They could have been legal if they resulted from differing charges for the bonds to install the lines but equal rates for water consumed. To a naive observer, however, this looked like an attempt to conceal information.
Then, when I worked as a waste-reduction specialist for Buncombe County in the ’90s, I was told that the county owned the Nature Center — and now I find that well, uh, the Water Agreement says that this and a number of other properties can revert to the city at any time. In reality, Buncombe County never had clear title to the Nature Center, McCormick Field or the municipal golf course because of a reversal clause in the deed (which actually prohibited the county from applying for some financial grants that required clear title). But that hasn’t stopped the county from putting considerable money into these facilities. To me, that spells deception for both county and city residents.
When the Regional Water Agreement was signed by Asheville, Buncombe County and Henderson County in 1995, Henderson County was promised land for a future wastewater-treatment plant (in exchange for allowing the Mills River water-treatment plant to be built there). But somehow, that land went the way of the racetrack: It disappeared. Another deception?
Then there’s the continuing sleight of hand concerning water revenue. It’s well known that Weldon Weir, Asheville’s city manager from 1950 to 1968, diverted Water Department revenues to meet other city obligations. And under the soon-to-expire Water Agreement, water revenue still flows to nonwater projects (to the tune of 5 percent to the city and 2.5 percent to the county).
And although Asheville has repeatedly gotten rid of things that could generate income — the Asheville Electric Company, the trolley system, the wastewater-treatment plant — now the city says it must hang onto the water system. Is that so that Asheville can keep on pulling money from the water system to fund other needs? The city says no; history says otherwise.
But history is history. Now we must look to the future — if the legislative delegation in Raleigh and local politics will let us, that is.
The solution is so simple.
It doesn’t matter who owns the system. Let Asheville keep it — but run it like a business, not a pawn to be moved around by politicians or developers.
There’s an approved method for calculating cost in any business. It’s called cost justification based on operating data. The cost must be divided into four factors: indirect cost, cost to pump the water over distance, cost to lift the water to higher elevations (head pressure), and line maintenance. All the information needed to calculate these factors is available, and each factor could be checked annually and modified as needed.
We know there are fixed costs (i.e., water treatment, billing, etc.), regardless of where the water is pumped. We also know that it takes more energy to move water 10 miles than one mile. So we could develop a per-mile rate for pumping. I can already hear the nay-sayers proclaiming: We can’t do that. But that is bull; every businessman must calculate his cost or he can’t stay in business.
Next, the city argues that it must charge county customers more because it costs more to pump the water out into the county. This is simplistic and problematic. When “out there” gets annexed by Asheville, will the city reduce the rate it charges those customers, even though the “cost” of delivering water to them remains the same? Cost justification for each small section being annexed does not consider the effect on the entire city, and annexation has decreased the city’s overall population density (from 3,000 people per square mile in the 1930s to less than 1,200 today). The overall decrease in density will increase the cost of providing all services, not just water.
Now let’s look at pumping water up the mountains, which costs more than letting it stay down low. I’ll bet more poor people live in low-lying areas than on Sunset Mountain. Yet all of those folks in the valleys are helping subsidize the cost of lifting that water up to the more affluent people on the mountaintops. With today’s GIS systems, it’s possible to calculate that added cost. And since the mayor says he wants the rates to be fair and wants to charge more for water out in the county, shouldn’t he also want to charge more to the folks on Sunset Mountain?
Next comes the hardest part: paying for line maintenance. Why not just divide the water system into districts and issue bonds to pay for the needed repairs in each area? Of course, this might run afoul of one or more of the Sullivan Acts, but think about it. The city could use its taxing power to back up the bonds, as well as the water system itself — which is worth $750 million according to the city’s figures and could be used as collateral. The debt service on the bonds could then be added to the water bills of people in the separate districts. If the repairs reduced the amount of lost water, the cost of operation would drop the next year, and the rates could be adjusted to reflect this.
Basing price on the true cost of delivering water to customers would leave Asheville with a significant asset (the water system). This method would ensure that we have a viable system with a built-in, transparent mechanism for adjusting and correcting the cost. Most important, it would make the pricing, operation and management business-based instead of political.
[Don Yelton is an adjunct professor of biology at Montreat College and an independent consultant on community-based self-management concepts. He has master’s degrees in ecology and in environmental-systems engineering. He was born and still lives in Buncombe County’s Jupiter community.]