Asheville – It all started in 2016 when a federal judge ruled that the “capital improvement fee” billed to Asheville Water Works subscribers was illegal.
The judge declared that the collected capital improvement fees on hand should be refunded to water utility subscribers. Fee proceeds on hand at that time amounted to just under a million dollars.
While it was estimated that this restitution would only amount to an average of $6.56 on a given bimonthly residential water bill, the court maintained that fair was fair and the funds should be released.
But then some funny things began to happen.
Instead of seeing that the $949,185.12 in “unclaimed” fees was refunded or credited back to water customers, Asheville City Council, at its April 13 meeting, elected to award half that amount to an organization called the Asheville City Schools Foundation and the other half to a nonprofit called CoThinkk.
The Asheville City Schools Foundation describes itself as “an independent non-profit organization dedicated to educational success for all city schools students.” It adds, “Ensuring enriching opportunities and access to education for all students is central to the mission of the Asheville City Schools Foundation. ACSF provides opportunities to support our schools through scholarships, after-school enrichment, emergency assistance for families, community engagement, and our educator grants programs.”
CoThinkk, according to its website, is an organization “dedicated to social change philanthropy by investing our time, talent and treasure to accelerate positive changes in communities of color in Asheville and Western North Carolina,” according to the mission statement on its website.
“We anchor ourselves in the power of networks that create the necessary ripple to shift the narrative of communities of color,” said CoThinkk founder Tracey Greene-Washington.
Neither ACSF nor CoThinkk are listed in the North Carolina Secretary of State’s office, which registers all entities – not just corporations – that are licensed to do business in the state.
CoThinkk does, however, list Eagle Market Street Development Corporation as its “legal agent.” The impetus for EMSDC, founded in 1994, was Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, the geographical, historical, spiritual and cultural centerpiece of Asheville’s Black community.
CoThinkk boasts 52 member organizations. Its ‘Partners in Education’ include Ingle’s, Duke Energy and Whole Foods.
“Looking forward, CoThinkk is building on its community-driven model that leverages the collective time, talent, and treasure of engaged individuals toward a collective impact agenda. Through this model, CoThinkk is working to create new systems, processes, and relationships that have the potential to yield equitable outcomes and to support a leadership pipeline of African American and Latinx members in the community poised to impact future generations in the region,” the organization says.
Crickets from Councillor Smith
Noting that city councilwoman Shenieka Smith, who is also a founding member of CoThinkk, did not recuse herself from council’s vote to give CoThinkk the water fees money.
The Tribune reached out to her on October 4 as follows:
Dear Vice Mayor:
In researching an article I am writing for the Asheville Tribune, I found that, during the online council meeting held on April 13 of this year, you did not recuse yourself from the vote to award nearly half a million dollars, in collected water capital improvement fees, to CoThinkk.
Since you are a founding member of CoThinkk, that would seem to be inappropriate at least, and possibly a violation of rules of procedure and even illegal.
Could you share with me your reasons for not recusing yourself? I appreciate your help.
As of this week’s press time, Councillor Smith had not responded.