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Committee hears officials’ presentations, no public comment

Rep. Tim Moffitt, chair of the Metropolitan Sewerage/Water System Committee, directs one last comment to Asheville’s Water Resources Director Steve Shoaf as he wraps up his presentation on Monday, Jan. 23. Lissa Gotwals/Carolina Public Press.

The future management and control of Asheville’s water supply was the focus of the state legislative Metropolitan Sewerage/Water System Committee, when it met Monday for the first time.

Rep. Tim Moffitt, R-Buncombe. Lissa Gotwals/Carolina Public Press

The committee, chaired by Rep. Tim Moffitt, R-Buncombe, met at the Legislative Office Building in Raleigh. Elected officials and representatives from the city’s water department and the county’s sewer district were on hand to offer presentations that dominated the meeting, which was not open to public comment.

The first, by Asheville Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer and Water Resources Department Director Stephen Shoaf, outlined the history, infrastructure and current financial state of the city’s water system, which currently serves Asheville and parts of Buncombe and Henderson counties.

The second, by representatives Tom Hartye and Steve Aceto, of the Metropolitan Sewerage District, gave an overview of the agency’s operations. View the agenda for the Jan. 23, 2012 meeting here. [PDF]

Asheville Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer. Lissa Gotwals/Carolina Public Press

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During Monday’s meeting, committee members largely remained silent in deference to the presenters. Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, asked for clarification on how certain aspects of Asheville’s water system were financed, and Rep. William Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, asked several questions about bond funding, but otherwise members mainly listened and took notes.

According to Moffitt, the three possible outcomes of the sessions are Asheville maintaining control of its water system, merging the system with MSD or forming a new independent body to manage the water system.

In May 2011, Moffitt filed a bill that sought to turn the Asheville water system over to the MSD. He later backed down and changed it to a “Study Bill,” which passed the N.C. House of Representatives on June 9 and prompted four exploratory meetings.

Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson. Lisa Gotwals/Carolina Public Press

Moffitt claims his motivation in pursuing the issue stems from research into the city of Asheville’s involuntary annexation of surrounding areas. The explanation is muddy, but essentially he argues that the relationship between Asheville and Buncombe County has been frayed by these annexations, and it stems back to water policy. Because of the Sullivan Act of 1933, Asheville is one of the few cities in the state that can’t charge higher rates for water to areas outside the city (Charlotte is the other). The Sullivan Act was upheld in the state Supreme Court, and new versions were passed when a regional water authority was dissolved in 2005.

“Hopefully this process will be useful in making sure that we’re providing water and sewer in the most cost-efficient and appropriate way,” said McGrady, according to a recent Hendersonville Times-News story.

Typically, residents outside the city pay higher rates for water since it’s more difficult to convey water to those areas, and there are fewer residents to pay the increased cost. Differential rates also allow cities to annex new land; they simply offer lower water rates as an incentive for outside areas to incorporate. The Sullivan Act cuts off this benefit, and thus Asheville’s growth was hindered by the lack of voluntary annexations.

Moffit’s critics believe that the real motivation behind the Study Bill is to eventually privatize Asheville’s water system. MSD falls under the purview of Buncombe County, but many see it as an intermediate step toward privatization. They point to Moffitt’s position as chair on the Select Committee on Public-Private Partnerships and to his previous legislative effort to privatize Asheville’s airport as examples.

Moffitt himself denies this motivation. “There was some concern because of my involvement with the committee on public-private partnerships that there was a covert attempt to privatize our water and sell it out to some corporation,” Moffitt said in a recent inteview with Mountain Xpress. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

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At Monday’s meeting, Shoaf made a case for the solvency of the Water Resources Department. Along with favorable bond ratings from Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s, the department has experienced modest growth over the past five years and now covers 183 square miles with 1,661 miles of water lines and three water treatment plants. The water system’s assets were recently estimated at $1.3 billion.

“The city has a lot to be proud of,” Moffitt said when the presentation was complete.

MSD representatives followed with a system overview that included evidence of better management of sewer overflows, strong customer service response and a capital improvement program that’s utilized $276 million since 1990 to repair sewer lines and general infrastructure.

Both presentations, as well as an introduction about the financial status of both, can be found online. The second meeting, to be held in Asheville sometime in February, will be open to the public.

A report from the committee is due the end of April. The committee’s website can be found here.

If the committee reaches any decision when the four sessions conclude, they will have to craft new legislation and push it through the General Assembly before it can be enacted.

Along with Moffitt, McGrady and Brawley, other committee members are Reps. William Brisson, D-Bladen, Cumberland (not present at Monday’s meeting), and Tom Murry, R-Wake. McGrady was instrumental in introducing Moffitt to the water system issue and crafting the Study Bill.

Shane Ryan

Shane Ryan is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at shane.spr8@gmail.com.

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