City - County Gov.Leslee Kulba

Council throws everything out of kitchen sink for water system

By Leslee Kulba-

A nonbinding referendum, updates at every city council meeting, another public input forum, notices in water bills, and possibly the hiring of a temporary public relations assistant are all ideas proposed by Asheville City Council to enhance public engagement in the protracted struggle for control of the water system. The ideas were collected during a special worksession to discuss how the city might maintain control of the water system, and to impress upon the public mind that this is a good thing. The meeting had been scheduled prior to news that Governor Beverly Perdue would not honor council’s request that she veto legislation that would prime the water system for takeover by the Metropolitan Sewerage District. Read more…

Throughout the meeting, members of council expressed remorse over anti-Asheville shortcomings in the findings of the study committee created as a clawback from an initial bill sponsored by Representative Tim Moffitt that would have simply transferred control. They felt boxed-in by a study that explored only one option: giving the water system to the MSD. No leeway was provided for tweaking the system or considering other models of governance.

Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer wanted to hold a public referendum, but Jan Davis thought the idea would be about as harmless as it was useful. The issues with which the city is grappling are far more complex and dry for the average citizen to invest enough time to move beyond the sound bites of his opinion leaders. The city has provided multiple opportunities for members of the public to voice their opinions. A few people are passionate, and they have voiced their opinions in various formats. Only one water system advocate came to speak at council’s last meeting. Davis thought a “more aggressive” tack would be to prevail upon the Buncombe County Commissioners to sign a resolution supporting Asheville’s ownership.

Gordon Smith liked the idea of a referendum, recommending council interpret the legislative directive that they negotiate in full faith as encouragement to enter into a “full court press.” He remarked, “We’re taking a kitchen sink approach, and let’s throw it all out.”

Council is interested in having a sit-down with the legislative delegation. They surveyed all five representatives to test availability, but Representatives Moffitt and Tom Apodaca did not respond. The first available meeting date already passed. Bellamy asked members of council if they wanted to send out another request. Bothwell said their “failure to respond . . . indicates their level of interest.” He recommended noticing the date and letting those who did not reply try to adjust their schedules if they saw fit. The meeting will be held August 27 at 1:30 p.m.

Council also debated how they should move forward with their good-faith negotiations. Manheimer said it was very difficult for Pelly and her to serve on the MSD board and represent the opposing interests of contending bodies. Davis would have preferred to do away with pretense and folly. He said of the MSD, “I think they like the direction it’s going and encourage the direction it’s going.” Council decided to appoint an ad-hoc committee of Manheimer, Pelly, and Davis to negotiate with the MSD.

Council was informed that the MSD has already sent out a RFP and selected Malcolm Pirnie/Arcadis to conduct a financial analysis of a potential merger with Asheville’s water department. Unlike the state-level study, this impact analysis will evaluate options of keeping things as they are, having the MSD take over the Asheville water department, having the Asheville water department take over the MSD, forming a new authority to oversee both, and forming a new authority to oversee every single water and sewer district in Buncombe and Henderson County.

City staff, however, noted the study would not address the very important question of the impact a merger would have on the City of Asheville’s budget. The city is therefore conducting another study. For the most part, it will be conducted in-house. As needed, third-party analysis will be provided by Raftelis Financial Consultants.

More particularly, the study will estimate the difference between operating the water system and operating the combined utility. It will also make a determination of whether it would be more cost-effective to operate both utilities under the aegis of the MSD or the City of Asheville. The city is already taking care of MSD’s billing. The study will also project how user rates would change under a merger and undertake the settling of the controversial question of what is a realistic market value for the system.

Water Resources Director Steve Shoaf said he will continue to operate the system as if no change in governance will take place. Providing the public with safe, clean water is too important to sit back and wait to see what happens.

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