Council Debates Water Equity - TribPapers

Council Debates Water Equity

Asheville City Council approved rate changes for the next fiscal year. They mostly followed staff recommendations, except they wanted to postpone voting on residential water rates until manufacturers and other high-volume water users could be made to shoulder more of the costs of running the system.

Asheville – Asheville City Council approved the 2023–2024 fees and charges schedule with one exception. Changes proposed by staff would impose, on average, an additional annual burden of $65.36 on householders for solid waste, stormwater, and water services. Additional fee changes would apply to persons using certain recreational facilities or afterschool services.

The city is required by the federal government to operate a stormwater management program, which is funded mostly through stormwater fees. Out of deference to the many residents who were experiencing hardship from the COVID shutdown, these fees were not increased for two years. Now, to pay for deferred maintenance, city staff proposed raising rates by 15%. Depending on lot size, residents will now be paying $4.23, $6.75, or $9.29 per month. Because system needs are “far” outpacing fund revenues, the city has invested in a study that should be completed in a few months.

The solid waste fee, which covers the cost of garbage, recycling, and brush collection, will increase by $12 per household for the whole year. Fees have not risen in “several years,” but the city’s contract for waste collection includes a 5% annual increase, and tipping fees are scheduled to increase by about 9% next year. Additional revenues would be used to add a new route and complete a visioning plan.

The city’s Water Resources enterprise fund collects fees for connecting buildings to the system, and it charges connected parties a base rate plus a consumption fee. To cover costs of providing services, staff recommended increasing the base rate on a sliding scale, starting with $0.95 more per month for a 5/8″ meter to $187.38 more for a 10″ meter. Consumption charge increases of $0.44 for single-family residences and $0.38 for multi-family residences were expected to result in an average 9% increase on water bills. Commercial and manufacturing consumption rates would start with an increase of $0.37 per hundred cubic feet (CCF) a month but decrease for companies using more than 1,000 CCF.

Other sources of revenue for Water Resources include fees collected from the Metropolitan Sewerage District (MSD) for handling that operation’s billing as well as rent paid for water hydrants. MSD fees would increase by $0.17 per billing, and hydrant rental deposits would increase to $500 and $1,000.

The fee increases would cover the hiring of an additional maintenance crew, more second- and third-shift staff at the water treatment plants, more customer service and public relations personnel, and engineers for capital improvement design. They would also go toward recovering revenues lost when the state declared illegal the capital improvement fees the system had been charging.

Councilmembers were fine with all the proposed changes except those pertaining to water rates. Councilwoman Kim Roney wanted to transition to monthly billing, but that won’t be feasible until the city installs a critical mass of functional automatic-reporting meters. She supported increasing rates for commercial customers, but she wanted them frozen for residential customers, at least until a rate study could be completed. Somewhat ironically, she also wanted to see an increase in residential base rates in order to capture more income from people owning second homes in Asheville.

Presenter Taylor Floyd reminded councilmembers that comparable cities’ water systems aren’t constrained from charging differential rates to customers outside the city limits, as Asheville is by the Sullivan acts. Also, a lot of comparable city systems charge tiered rates, that is, they step up rates with consumption. Roney considered Asheville’s one-size-fits-all residential water rates a moral hazard by which “we set up our community to fail each other.” Overall, though, Asheville’s rates were considered competitive.

Perceived inequities with the current schedule include large discounts for people living in multifamily housing and “deep discounts” enjoyed by commercial and industrial customers. Water Resources Director David Melton said an analysis of different ways of charging differential rates was part of the water study.

Manheimer asked if there was a way to pull the water rates out of the fees and charges schedule that council would adopt that night. City Manager Debra Campbell replied that her only concern was that council was asking staff to duplicate work being performed by Raeftelis, the firm performing the city’s water study. So, Manheimer suggested freezing only the residential rates and applying the proposed increases, or more aggressive increases, to all other users.

Councilwoman Maggie Ullman asked if council could just skip voting on water fees. Another reason was nobody had said anything about what it was going to cost to address the large water outage that occurred last winter, either. She asked if council could just adopt changes with a budget amendment midyear. Manheimer said that would be possible, but revenues would not be sufficient to begin addressing capital needs.

Other fee and charge adjustments will affect the utilization of Parks and Recreation facilities. Costs of gravesites, burials, and other funeral services at Riverside Cemetery will increase by hundreds of dollars. Some costs of afterschool and summer day camp programming will increase, while some new charges will be instated. Fees for field or court use and storage at athletic facilities, weight room use, and swimming will mostly decrease. Rates will also be adjusted at the WNC Nature Center and the Aston Park Tennis Center.

Development fees and permit charges will increase for grading and stormwater compliance. The increases are described as necessary for the department to “continue to provide efficient service to customers,” that service appearing to consist in charging for fees and permits.

Council postponed the adoption of residential water rates until staff could arrange for more equitable and climate-friendly distribution. They then unanimously adopted the remainder of the fees and charges schedule.