By Leslee Kulba- At the last formal meeting of Asheville City Council, Interim Water Resources Director David Melton presented a “Non-Revenue Water Report.” Mayor Esther Manheimer clarified “non-revenue” was the trade term for “leaking.” The highlight of the report was, since the department began actively locating and addressing leaks in 2006, losses had decreased from 7 million gallons a day (MGD) to 4MGD, and this translated to $3 million in annual treatment costs. It also meant the city has not had to increase the amount of water it treats, even though consumption increased from 13MGD to 15MGD. For the record, the linear regression of the data displayed with the report showed non-revenue water had fallen only from slightly below 7MGD to slightly below 5MGD.
City Manager Gary Jackson elaborated on the significance. “If you’ll go back before this ten-year timeline, before 2007, there was a decision made by council … that they would sever the [1981 water] agreement and discontinue having an independent water authority with appointees by the city council and the county commission. One of the primary reasons for that was that they could not get agreement to invest in the water repairs that would produce these kinds of results.
“The council stayed with it, they made the decision that we were going to operate this like a business. There were engineering studies done that identified the capital investments that needed to be made, Mayor Terry Bellamy led this with council support. We issued $40M worth of water revenue bonds, which were repaid by the customers. So, the customers’ fees were gathered to invest in capital improvements, which were a primary and instrumental element in producing these savings.” All that notwithstanding, “We continue to get the argument that the city cannot and should not be operating this system, and with significant litigation and expense in the litigation.”
Manheimer recalled the water system’s former ungainly, multilateral governing structure that bond raters had described as dysfunctional. As sole owner, first steps the city took included locating lines that had been lain without documentation and sending a camera down the lines to find sites needing attention. Councilor Julie Mayfield said the city was “the envy of everybody in the room” at a water conference she attended last fall. Jackson added other cities are “wrestling with how to make this happen.” Some have experienced tragedies because of deferred water system maintenance, and repairs will be extensive and expensive.
Jackson had been brought onboard twelve years ago in the thick of the water dispute, and at Tuesday’s meeting, the mayor announced his intent to retire at the end of the year. In a letter read into the record, Manheimer commended Jackson for, among other things, getting the city triple-A bond ratings and leading it through its recent floating of $74 million in bonds for parks and recreation, transportation, and affordable housing. He also, “managed the city through the greatest number of capital improvements to city infrastructure in its history.”
As city manager, it has been Jackson’s job not to set policy, but to faithfully carry out whatever directions council gives him. In thanking Manheimer for her words, Jackson said, “What makes this such a fun job is the reach this council wants to have;” admitting council has given him “aggressive and ambitious goals.” An example would be council’s decision to cut the city’s carbon emissions by 80%. Jackson responded by hiring a sustainability manager to, for starters, establish baselines and metrics.
Jackson had to make city budgets work not only through the recession, he had to always have contingency plans, as the NC General Assembly was always threatening to remove or abridge the city’s ability to use water revenue for general fund purposes in uncertain ways. The NCGA also took away the city’s ability to grow its tax base through annexation during his tenure. Before he was even hired, he self-described as a proponent of planning, some say to a fault.
Another theme characterizing Jackson’s work in Asheville is restructuring. Early on, he hired Barbara Whitehorn as CFO to “dig deep” and find ways to realize efficiencies in management. Since then, departments and divisions and their respective leaders have been in ongoing flux, approximating what might be called just-in-time management. An early achievement of the restructuring was the creation of a one-stop shop for development services. Before that, builders had often complained about red tape and multiple cops shouting orders in a game of Red-Light/Green Light.
All in all, Jackson has been a straight-talker, confronting council with cold, hard facts as needed. He’s demonstrated a good grasp on cost-benefit analysis and openness to innovation to meet council aspirations. He has also been fair, requiring staff to vet issues before they could come before council and having processes in place to avoid the appearance of political favoritism.