Water Department’s Missing Money Part II - TribPapers

Water Department’s Missing Money Part II

AshevillePart one of this article posed the question:  Whatever happened to the nearly half-million dollars that were left unclaimed after a North Carolina Supreme Court judge ordered that money be paid to customers who brought a class action suit against the Asheville Water Authority? The court stipulated that the funds should go to the Asheville Public Schools Foundation and an organization called CoThinkk. 

The Asheville City Schools Foundation (ACSF) was founded in 1988 “by parents, community members, and school personnel to increase local support for public education,” according to its website.  

“Since 2000, the foundation has provided over $1.9 million to projects that directly support the students and educators in our schools and over $3 million to students through scholarships,” the website copy continues.

The City of Asheville is listed among ACSF’s “Grantors and Partners” – entities from whom the ACSF recieves money. Other listed donors include the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and Bank of America.

Enter CoThinkk

The other entity listed by the court as a recipient of the water fee lawsuit proceeds is CoThinkk, an organization that describes itself as being, “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.”

“CoThinkk is a giving circle that brings together community leaders who care about the economic and social well-being of communities of color in Asheville and Western North Carolina,” the CoThinkk website says.

CoThinkk, according to its narrative, was founded by “about 50 people” at a launch event held in September 2014. It sums up its founding and purposes as follows:

“[Cothinkk held] monthly meetings and annual retreats, as well as capacity building workshops to help take the mystique out of the grant process, create access to grant dollars, build confidence, and build community. A part of this process included advocating for the giving circle model and its potential to break down barriers, and building trust and strengthening relationships between African American and Latinx leaders. Through a shared, collaborative, and collective agenda CoThinkk went through a process to prioritize its focus areas, landing on economic opportunity/mobility, education, and leadership development. Along with grants to leaders of color working in Asheville and Western North Carolina, CoThinkk has mapped out a vision to accompany grant money with volunteer time and access to the resources and skill-sets of the membership.”

The Eagle/Market Street Factor

As its “fiscal agent,” CoThinkk lists Eagle Market Street Development, a 501c3 corporation that was formed in 1994 under the directorship of Dr. John H. Grant and under the auspices of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church.

Mount Zion, established in 1880, is the geographical and spiritual centerpiece of the Eagle Market Street neighborhood known as “The Block.”  Once the beating heart of Asheville’s Black Community, it survived the destruction of its surrounding neighborhood during the city-mandated program called, with supreme irony, “Urban Renewal.”

EMSDC “serves the Asheville Buncombe community in property development, economic development and access to human services,” according to its website.  In the urban renewal aftermath, Eagle Market Street became a major player.

In 2013, the city council authorized construction to begin on a combined residential and commercial center that would incorporate facades of several historic buildings on “The Block,” the traditional business and cultural hub of Asheville’s black community. In November of 2015, city council approved a new financing plan for the completion of the Eagle Market Street construction project. EMSDC handed off funding arrangements to Mountain Housing Opportunities.

So the taxpayer windfall generated by the court’s restitution order to Water Department customers of approximately $474,000 that should have been redistributed to 

its customers (See Part I) appears to have been co-opted by the city itself, to find its way back into city coffers by deeply troubling means.

Up Next:  What the City Has To Say

Editor’s note:  The Tribune has reached out to Asheville City Councilwoman Shenieka Smith for comment as to why she did not recuse herself from the CoThinkk grant money vote, given that she is a founding member of CoThinkk.  Smith could not be reached as of press time.

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