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The long, sordid history of public water service in Buncombe and Henderson counties is again under scrutiny, with a five-member legislative study committee holding the second of four sessions considering the future of regional water and sewer management.
While the committee’s first meeting, held last month in Raleigh, was not open for public comment, Thursday’s session will be a public hearing. Sign up for those who wish to address the committee begins at 8:30 a.m. in the Virginia C. Boone Mountain Heritage Building (directions here); public comments will be heard beginning at 10 a.m., after scheduled remarks from elected officials (for details, see text box, below).
According to the current agenda, the committee will hear comments from city and county residents and business leaders in discrete time slots.
Last May, Moffitt filed a bill that sought to turn the Asheville water system over to the Municipal Sewerage District, known as 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 the four exploratory meetings.
Members say there are at least three possible outcomes after the study committee completes its work: the City of Asheville maintaining control of its water system; merging the system with the regional MSD; or forming a new, independent authority to manage the water system.
The committee must complete its deliberations by April, and will deliver a report to the state’s Legislative Review Committee, which could opt to draft new legislation for the system.
Study committee member Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson), told Carolina Public Press that any legislation that might be forthcoming regarding the management of the local water and sewer systems would most likely to emerge during the General Assembly’s long session beginning in January, 2013.
Moffitt told CPP his motivation in pursuing the water issue stems from the City of Asheville’s involuntary annexation of surrounding areas of Buncombe County in recent years.
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At a public forum organized by Mountain Voices Alliance Monday evening, Moffitt cited the forced removal early last century of residents of the drainage now occupied by the North Fork Reservoir, one of three sources of the system’s current water supply.
And, in speaking to CPP, Moffitt said that the history of the system – which has incorporated many smaller water and sewer distribution systems over the years and been characterized by disputes among the local governments once united under the old Water Authority – suggests that the City of Asheville is not the system’s best or even rightful owner.
“History has demonstrated that local officials have found it difficult to negotiate and keep their agreements” when it comes to the water system, Moffitt said, “and ultimately it ends up in a dispute in which the courts or the General Assembly has to get involved.”
McGrady is mindful of that history in describing how Henderson County was shut out of the decision-making process with the regional water system as a result of a 2005 reorganization of the former Water Authority.
The reorganization effectively killed his community’s ownership of the water system, he said, leaving Henderson County with no say in how rates are structured.
Rates and privatization concerns considered
That rate structure has been a key area of dispute.
And if Monday’s forum is any indication, attendees at Thursday’s session will hear frequent references to the Sullivan Act of 1933, and its two more recent amendments.
Under the Sullivan Act – encoded when the North Carolina legislature was controlled by Democrats, as Moffitt pointed out for the crowd Monday – Asheville is one of the few cities in the state that can’t levy higher rates on users outside the city, even if it costs the system more to provide service there. The Sullivan Act has been upheld in the state’s Supreme Court. More recent versions were passed when a former regional water authority was dissolved in 2005.
“No one should be discriminated against when it comes to rates,” Moffitt said. “We all want clean, safe, quality drinking water at the appropriate pressure coming out of our taps.”
Meanwhile, forced annexation to bring tax revenue to support system expansion is unfair, he said.
“The city historically refers to their inability to charge differential water rates as a mechanism to force voluntary annexation, so they’ve had to use involuntary annexation to expand the city,” he said.
But some observers worry that the current effort may bring about changes that are not necessarily in the public interest.
“I cannot imagine that anything that comes out of this committee is going to be balanced, because you have a majority of Republicans on this committee, along with a Democrat who voted with Republicans on the budget,” said Rep. Susan Fisher (D-Buncombe). “So it is very much slanted in one direction.”
Water system activist Barry Summers maintains a blog that assembles background and analysis regarding the system. Summers worries that moving water from City of Asheville management to a new, independent authority is a first step that could lead to system privatization.
As support for his concern, Summers cites Moffitt’s earlier legislative attempt to privatize Asheville’s airport, as well as his position as chair of the legislature’s Select Committee on Public-Private Partnerships, where discussions include expanding the role of private corporations in providing public services, such as utilities and transit, thus moving them from government control and into the hands of private entities.
There are several national corporations in the business of buying up small, community water operations in North Carolina, according to Katie Hicks, assistant director at Clean Water for North Carolina.
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Their report, Privatizing North Carolina’s Water, Undermining Justice, argues that large corporations are quietly acquiring many small, community water operations in the state. It also discusses how the new, larger operators set rates to ensure a certain rate of return on investment; meanwhile, mechanisms are lacking to monitor whether funds from rate increases are distributed in system improvements, sometimes forcing low-volume users to subsidize improvements for higher-volume users.
But Moffitt took the opportunity at Monday’s forum to deny any interest in privatizing the community’s water system.
“I’ve said over and over that it has not been a consideration of mine,” Moffitt told the crowd. “I have no desire to privatize our system, and let someone take our assets and put them in hands of a private company.”
“The only thing I want is water security for all the people in our community,” he continued. “The outcome is undecided.
“In our area, a public body will and should control our water. As far as private concerns in other areas, I’ll let other people worry about that.”
Want to attend?
What: A public hearing by the General Assembly Metropolitan Sewerage/Water System Committee.
When: Beginning 8:30 a.m. Thursday at the WNC Agricultural Center near the Asheville Regional Airport.
8:30-9 a.m.: Public sign up to speak
9-10 a.m.: Elected officials speak
10 a.m.-noon: City residents
1-3 p.m.: Buncombe County residents
3-4 p.m.: Henderson County residents
4-5 p.m.: Business owners and managers