Town ends practice of providing employees living in Black Mountain with free water

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News
Black Mountain aldermen voted 4-1 in their regular meeting on March 11 to stop providing free water service to employees who live within town limits.

A longstanding benefit for some town employees in Black Mountain will cease after aldermen voted to put an end to it on March 11.

The board voted 4-1 to stop providing free water service to workers who live within town limits, a practice town manager Josh Harrold discovered has been in place for decades.

“Since my appointment I’ve become aware of instances where the town could be operating outside of its authority and I have taken measures to correct the error,” Harrold told aldermen and mayor Don Collins. 

Harrold was one of 16 people currently employed by the town receiving free water from the town as a benefit, which he was offered when he accepted the position last October.

“I didn’t think anything about it, to be honest,” he said. “I was at a city-county managers conference in February, and as you can imagine at those conferences you hear about all kinds of issues impacting small towns in N.C.”

Harrold told some of his colleagues that Black Mountain employees who live in the town receive free water as a benefit of working for the town.

“The reaction I got was along the lines that this practice seemed a little weird and wasn't something typically offered," he said. 

The town manager reached out to the UNC School of Government for advice on the matter. 

"Their feedback was that we didn't have the authority to provide that the way were providing it," Harrold said. "I was told it could be done as a benefit so it could be taxable, but the way it was operating at the time was outside our authority as a municipality."

Alderman Maggie Tuttle asked Harrold if he was able to find out when the practice began. 

"At least 40 years," alderman Larry Harris said. 

Alderman Ryan Stone nodded his head in agreement. 

"If not longer," he said. "Probably since the 1950s."

Mayor Don Collins applauded Harrold's handling of the matter. 

"One thing I've known about Josh since his last stint with the town is that he won't do something he's not supposed to do," Collins said. "Once he learned that this wasn't alright to do he looked into it and brought it to the board."

Collins added that he believed it wasn't right to subsidize certain employees with tax dollars and not others. 

Discontinuing the benefit required a vote by the board. 

Stone expressed concern over taking away a benefit from employees who had been receiving it for years. 

"Certainly that raises concerns among individuals because that is money out of their pockets," he said. "I know that's not your intent or our intent as a board to not value their service and honor what we've committed to do for them."

Stone advocated for keeping the benefit for an additional month until aldermen could vote on a fair way to provide it equitably. 

"I think we need to continue as it is until we vote on an alternative," he said. 

Collins and Harris disagreed with Stone.

"I don't know how we could keep doing that when we know it's not allowed," Collins said. 

"I agree," Harris added.

In an email to The Black Mountain News on March 14, Harris said he was reminded by his wife that aldermen received free water as well when he served on the board from 1987-89. 

"I had completely forgotten about it and I wanted to disclose this," he said. "We also had the use of free golf carts and green fees if we were golfers. I don’t think anyone intends to blame any past boards or administrations but to address the needed compliance at the present with state and federal laws pertaining to use of public property and income tax reporting and compliance."      

Stone was the lone dissenting vote as aldermen took action to stop providing free water services for employees living in the town, but a special called meeting on March 20 will allow them to consider a budget amendment that will compensate all employees fairly, Harrold said. 

"What we'll do is present something that will make it right for those who weren't getting that benefit," he said.