This cracked earth was, until recently, the bottom of the Ragged Mountain Reservoir, drained in anticipation of dam construction. Braverman notes that dredging requires no draining.
Until this suit, Braverman quietly pursued a home-based career as an immigration attorney.
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Citizens who have seen their water bills triple over the past decade are facing another wave of price hikes and a suddenly-doubled debt load that could cause financial trouble. And they have just lost one of their three reservoirs in the lead-up to what could become a dry summer. These are just a few of the "absurd" things that made lawyer Stanton Braverman mad enough to sue.
In a Monday morning press conference at his home office in the Belmont neighborhood, the 70-year-old Braverman– who goes by "Stan"– blames the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority for wasting a pile of public money and running the risk of losing a century's worth of water assets.
Moreover, Braverman warns that the public could find itself at the mercy of a monopolistic private business that swoops in if Authority bonds fall into default. Such a nightmare scenario is Braverman's speculation, but he contends that the possibility looms large because the Authority has failed to secure enough cash for its buying spree, which includes contracting last month for a large but unfunded dam in the Ragged Mountain Natural Area.
"They seem to have put the cart before the horse," says Braverman, who sued the Authority and the other three water-dealing governments last month. "You don't sign a contract for a $21 million dam before you line up financing," he says.
Despite holding a pile of cash bigger than the General Fund of the City of Charlottesville, the Authority has been advised to double its debt load to fund a slate of construction projects that it tallies at $174 million by the end of fiscal 2015. That means that in order to service the new debt, water/sewer rates, which have already tripled since 1999, must climb another 26 percent.
The new price hikes were buried in a report released last July that indicates that some of the Authority's infrastructure spending will come from the current cash stash but that the majority, $72.2 million, must come from new bonds, i.e. debt.
"Financial consultants commend water authority as it prepares to borrow for infrastructure," was the headline over a story on the topic by Charlottesville Tomorrow's Brian Wheeler, whose relentless cheerleading for a new dam downplayed the fact that only $44 million of the $143 million cost to build the new Ragged Mountain dam/pipeline system is on the Authority's wish list. That means that the vast majority of the Community Water Supply Plan– nearly $100 million more– lies off the capital budget and is therefore unaccounted for, even with the near-term rate hikes.
Braverman notes that the planned debt service depends not only on pushing higher water/sewer rates onto the public but also on ambitious growth estimates that have the local population nearly doubling in 50 years. The lawyer warns that if revenue fails to keep pace with payments to bond-holders, the bonds will fall into default; and that's when a private firm could scoop them up for, say, 15 cents on the dollar. And because the Authority is attempting to back the bonds with the water infrastructure, a private company could own the reservoirs.
Rivanna Authority director Tom Frederick, who communicates with the Hook only via electronic message, declined to comment beyond the court pleadings.
Braverman notes that under Frederick, the Authority has been buying financial advice from a Richmond-based firm called Davenport & Company whose dealings recently drew a lawsuit from Fluvanna County for allegedly enriching itself at the expense of taxpayers. Davenport, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment, has denied the allegation.
Davenport's papers readily reveal that the proposed bond deal for Charlottesville and Albemarle will cost citizens a 26 percent price hike over the next four years. But the potential of losing a century's worth of public infrastructure– pumps and pipes in addition to the reservoirs– is what really riles the litigator.
"Listening to Davenport talk," says Braverman, "is like listening to your stockbroker saying MCI or Enron is a good investment."
Thus far, Davenport has been hired for occasional advice, but if the company ends up winning the right to issue the Authority's bonds, it could earn up to $1.5 million in "underwriting expenses and fees," according to its own presentation. If that happens, Davenport will become part of a lucrative if not necessarily noble trifecta of companies. Previously, engineering firm Gannett Fleming, which launched the dam, and MMM Design, which declared the Belmont Bridge unworthy of preservation, have parlayed government consulting deals into monumental construction projects of questionable necessity– along with six- and even seven-figure design fees.
As for the new reservoir, it would focus all local water supply in one pool with over two billion gallons of storage. Such a system has long drawn criticism from environmentalists such as the Sierra Club for putting all the drinking water in one place along busy Interstate 64.
In addition to the alleged ecological and financial vulnerabilities, though, Braverman raises a legal one. He contends that the dam scheme ignores Virginia's long tradition of following the Dillon Rule, a concept that denies localities the right to do things not explicitly allowed by law.
"On the Dillon Rule alone I'm going to prevail," says Braverman, noting that Albemarle County suffered a major wake-up call in January when, in a case called called Sinclair v. Cingular, the Virginia Supreme Court cited the Dillon Rule when invalidating Albemarle's attempt to delegate zoning decisions to its Planning Commission.
Braverman concedes that just like eventually-prevailing Albemarle litigant Kent Sinclair, he may lose under a lower-level judge, but he vows to quickly move up to the Virginia Supreme Court or to federal court to press his case. Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Cheryl Higgins has granted the Rivanna Authority an expedited hearing this Thursday, April 19 in the Authority's emergency move to green-light its bonds.
Braverman's press conference took place April 16, coincidentally on the same day that the Ragged Mountain Natural Area, the 980-acre preserve that holds the drained reservoir, closed its trails to the public for over a year of planned dam construction.