Updated 6:00am 12/21: The Metropolitan Sewerage District has voted down a proposal to expand its board with 3 seats for Henderson County. The 10-1 vote reflected the belief of board members that giving Henderson the same number of seats as Asheville would create an imbalance because Asheville customers make up a majority of those served. There's also lingering mistrust after the state legislature tried to take over the Asheville water system and turn it over to MSD.
That was rejected by the state Supreme Court last year. One of the proponents of that measure, Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson) was on-hand for yesterday's vote, urging passage. He says residents in northern Henderson County need to have a voice on the board.
The city of Asheville is casting a wary eye at the legislature again as a key vote concerning the region’s sewer and water looms. BPR’s Jeremy Loeb reports.
The battle over Asheville’s water stretches decades. Most recently, the state Supreme Court last year ruled in the city’s favor against legislation that would have turned over the city’s water system to the Metropolitan Sewerage District, or MSD. Barry Summers with Save Our Water WNC has followed the issue since that legislation was brought forward. He says control of water is going to be the biggest fight over the next century.
Summers: “Issues like climate change, groundwater contamination, all the things that put stress on clean water supplies, those things are going to accelerate. And also the desire to use water as a commodity, to turn it into a place to develop profit, that’s accelerating too.”
The main supporter of the legislation was Rep. Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville.
McGrady: “Regional water and sewer makes a massive amount of sense, and I think MSD is the model.”
Now the MSD is set to vote on whether to add 3 seats to its board for Henderson County. Currently the MSD provides sewer service for Buncombe County and a part of northern Henderson County, the Cane Creek Water and Sewer District that includes Fletcher and Mills River. But Cane Creek is not represented on the board. Because the MSD is already providing service there, adding Henderson County to the board might seem non-controversial. But at its last meeting, the vote was held up. Asheville mayor Esther Manheimer is a board member. She had some concerns.
Manheimer: “If the Metropolitan Sewerage District were to agree with Henderson County and bring Cane Creek into the MSD, will that allow us to have a little more peace and quiet around the operation of utility systems here in Buncombe County and Henderson County for that matter?”
Manheimer wants assurances that this will put to rest any plan to try again to take over the city’s water. McGrady’s own words though hint that he’s running for re-election partly to deal with lingering water and sewerage issues. And his action to create a legislative study committee similar to the one that gave rise to the original Asheville water bill has Manheimer concerned.
Manheimer: “Some of the issues that the study committee is charged with looking at are things like regionalization and frankly other issues that our water legislation touched on. That is a little bit of a looming threat. Let’s just put it that way. What is that study commission going to do? What is it going to produce?”
Barry Summers was a bit more direct.
Summers: “Chuck McGrady really can’t let this go. He really, really, really wants to get ahold of Asheville’s water.”
McGrady, for his part, wants to put those fears to rest.
McGrady: “In this case I’ve done exactly what I’ve said at every point in time, and to presume that all of a sudden I’m going to change course and go somewhere else, you know that’s disappointing to me if that’s what they think.”
Hendersonville’s water system provides water not just to the city but much of the county as well – which makes it similar to Asheville’s water system. But there is a key difference. There’s a law that singles out Asheville in a way unlike other municipalities in the state. Asheville cannot impose different rates on customers outside the city, as Summers explains.
Summers: “So that’s why you see the growth that surrounds Buncombe County being facilitated with cheap, subsidized water from the city of Asheville, and then also you’re seeing cheap, subsidized water going to northern Henderson County.”
And growth is the issue here. The theory would be who controls the water controls the growth. So McGrady says for him the issue is about representation.
McGrady: “And the theory is that, well, public water, metropolitan water, they’re going to be serving water to their constituents who if they have problems with water, what do they do? They vote out the mayor and council. Well, when the majority of your water customers or a large percentage of your water customers aren’t citizens of the city serving water, they don’t functionally have a voice.”
McGrady wants to ensure that if customers in Henderson County have concerns they have someone to turn to.
Manheimer: “And that’s been something that I’ve been working on, which is to try to identify, ‘What are those concerns and is there a way for us to address them without losing control of the Asheville Water System, which is incredibly important to our city and frankly to the areas that we serve outside the city?’”
For Manheimer and Asheville, there’s concerns with regards to representation on the sewer board.
Manheimer: “The Metropolitan Sewerage District board right now is 12 members and Asheville only has 3 seats even though we have more than half the customers within the city limits. That to me has always been an oddity. But, I think that that speaks to Asheville’s history in the legislature. There are some remnants left over from many, many, many years where things were set up by the legislature that put Asheville at a bit of a disadvantage.”
So there’s the mistrust between the state and the city. There’s the relationship between the sewer board and water system. And for Asheville, the looming threat of legislation. One big fear of Asheville leaders is that because the Supreme Court ruling over the city’s water system basically said Asheville can’t be singled out in this way, that McGrady might try to bring all water systems under the oversight of the state Utilities Commission.
McGrady: “Well that was the threat to try to bring people to the table. If they weren’t able to work out some way of allowing people that didn’t have any way of being represented, we obviously could treat the municipal systems just like private systems, but no I don’t want to go down that road. These water systems have over the last 10 to 20 years functioned fairly well and I’m not sure adding a public utility commission is particularly effective.”
McGrady says he doesn’t want there to be any legislation dealing with the issue.
McGrady: “I mean I think Asheville’s been acting in good faith with respect to managing its water system over the last 10 to 15, 20 years. I don’t want to go back to where we were. I’m pretty happy with the status quo and I’m basically asking the parties to reflect the status quo and the agreements between all of these parties.”
But perhaps because of the contentious history between the legislature and Asheville, continued mistrust may remain the status quo.
The Metropolitan Sewerage District is scheduled to vote Wednesday, December 19th whether to give Henderson County 3 seats, the same number as Asheville.