Water tussle in Asheville is worth following

Feb 18, 2013

The tug-of-war over who controls the Asheville water system does not directly impact Haywood County, yet it is a debate worth following closely. The issue isn’t just about water and who pays for it or owns it, but speaks to an underlying governing mindset that we should all care about.

First off, it’s important to go back to some very basic notions that are widely accepted about governance.

Government was formed to provide services that people could not get individually ­— a network of roads to facilitate travel and commerce; a water collection, distribution and treatment system that benefits commerce and public health; a wastewater treatment system that protects public safety and our waterways; a record-keeping system to prove who owns what property and a law-enforcement system to keep both property and people safe. The list goes on, but you get the drift.

A second widely held principle is that the government closest to the people is the best. Elected leaders in a city or a county most likely have a personal connection to many within the community and are likely direct consumers of the services they oversee. As government goes up the ladder to Raleigh and Washington, we all feel less of a connection and even more ineffectual when it comes to changing what's wrong.

These two concepts are key to the debate taking place in the Asheville region about water. State legislators, many who are likely to be unfamiliar with the city and its issues, are now debating the fate of Asheville's water system and seem poised to force the city to turn assets over to another group, whether they want to or not. That strikes of eminent domain — the taking of property for the public good, which is something most of those now in power in Raleigh say they oppose.

For those who are unfamiliar with the debate, two Republican legislators in the region, Rep. Tim Moffitt of Buncombe County and Rep. Chuck McGrady of Henderson County, have decided the Asheville-owned water system needs to be transferred to the regional Metropolitan Sewer District.  The reason reported for the push are to make sure that customers who live outside Asheville do not pay higher rates than those within the city limits, particularly if the payer is a large industry that might need a high volume of water.

Last session, a bill passed to set up a study commission and urged the leaders of both systems to work together to transfer the property. There appears to be little agreement between the entities on the issue, so those behind the merger are poised to force the issue.

Asheville leaders are understandably upset at the power and asset grab. They have hired a lobbyist and brought the issue to their colleagues in the N.C. League of Municipalities, a group that understands its precedent-setting nature and has made the battle one of its top legislative priorities.

In at least two recent reports, those pushing the transfer have said, in essence, "if you’re going to fight us on this, we’ll just stop being nice about it because this is happening."

The issue of compensation is murky. A proposed buyout figure of $57 million has been tossed around for the system valued at $1.4 billion by some estimates. Moffitt and others say the system belongs to the rate payers. Eliminate parenthesis? (If that's the case, why can't those who pay power bills to Duke Energy, another public utility, demand their fair share as well.) In any event, Asheville leaders don’t want to “sell” and those wanting the assets transferred don’t seem to be concerned about the higher costs that will need to be passed on to ratepayers who must “buy” it.

The struggle is one that speaks directly to governance philosophy.

Do we want a government that operates from the top down or the bottom up? Have we somewhere along the line decided that a regional view is more important and that cities don't count in some matters?

The broader question is: If state government can successfully take property from a city, what's next? County property or industrial holdings? What's to say your business or private property won't become the next victim if we are all quiet when it comes to allowing the state to take whatever it pleases?

The state of North Carolina is headed down a slippery slope, and this makes the Asheville water issue worthy of our attention. It is one local government units in Haywood County might want to consider weighing in on.

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