The Henderson County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday signaled its conditional endorsement of state legislation that would consolidate much of the water and sewer service for Buncombe and Henderson counties, narrowly shooting down an effort by commissioners Grady Hawkins and Larry Young to have legislators carve Henderson County out of the consolidation effort.
Wading publicly for the first time into the controversial bill that would transfer Asheville's water system to a new regional water and sewer authority, the commissioners found more they liked about the bill than disliked. They agreed to fight for greater county representation but rejected by a 2-3 vote Hawkins' motion to oppose Henderson County's participation in the forced consolidation. Later, state Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Hendersonville, rejected the proposal to add more Henderson County appointees to the board.
At stake is the Cane Creek sewer district in northern Henderson County, which has 3,300 customers and covers about a third of the county's population. Henderson County and the Cane Creek system are included in a larger bill that consolidates the Asheville water system, the Buncombe-based Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD).
Hawkins and Young warned that there are too many unknowns — in terms of future rate increases, the ability of the new Metropolitan Water and Sewer District to guide economic development and another layer of government that can tax property owners.
"As I look at this, it's quite extensive, and it has a lot of repercussions for our Cane Creek district," Hawkins said. "This legislation sets it up as a public body, they can issue bonds under this bill, which pledges the taxing authority to pay the bond off. They have taxing authority, they have right of way authority, they can collect the taxes for the whole district and all the taxable property in the district would be subject to the taxes," including landowners that are not customers of Cane Creek or the new MWSD.
"This bill was designed to address a problem between Asheville and Buncombe County and now Henderson County is being drawn into it," Hawkins added.
But chairman Charlie Messer, leading the effort to send a message of support, said the bill accomplishes what the county has wanted for a long time — a stable guarantee of wastewater treatment capacity for many years.
All five commissioners, however, voted to ask that the Legislature to amend the bill to increase the county's representation on the 13-member governing board from three to five — adding delegates from Mills River and Fletcher to three at-large appointed by the commissioners.
Currently, the bill provides for two members appointed by the county commissioners and one from Mills River.
"If we don't have the right representation, who's to say the rates is not going to go up," Young said. "It does affect economic development. There's a lot of things that if we don't have the proper vote on that board, that anything can happen. No matter what happens we're going to end up being the loser."
Three hours later, state Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Hendersonville Republican and cosponsor of the legislation, rejected the idea of adding two more members from Henderson County.
"No, he said when asked if he was open to the idea. "There's no rational basis to do that."
Asheville and Buncombe County have a greater population, more ratepayers and have paid far more into the Asheville water and MSD sewer system for years, he said. In fact, two Buncombe legislators have already said that Henderson County with three members has more than its share.
"Their argument frankly is that Henderson County is getting too much, that Henderson County is overrepresented," he said. "No, I can't make that argument (to add members) in good faith."
He said the argument that Fletcher merits a representative is not supported either.
"Fletcher has no skin in the game," he said. "How is Fletcher negatively affected by what MSD or what the water system does? Not at all."
Fletcher's interest is protected, he said, because the law spells out that the MWSD must get the town's permission to extend sewer lines, just as Hendersonville's water system requires Henderson County's consent to extend water lines in the unincorporated area.
"We've taken something we've learned in Henderson County and applied it with this new regional entity," he said. "I'm going to continue to protect and make sure Henderson County's concerns will be addressed."
Hawkins said the bill hands over to the new utility assets that Henderson County ratepayers have paid for —58 miles of sewer line and nine pump stations. The district has $1.4 million in debt and a fund balance of $2.25 million.
A study showed that consolidation could lower Cane Creek customers' bills by about $10 a month.
Commissioners acknowledged that as a practical matter, the bill is probably on an unobstructed path to becoming law. It passed the House overwhelmingly Monday night and has the support in the Senate of Sen. Tom Apodaca, the powerful Rules Committee chairman from Hendersonville.
"We have a good relationship with the delegation," Commissioner Mike Edney said. "You work with those folks on all the issues. Sometimes you get what you want, sometimes you don't. They're looking at some bigger issue things that maybe we don't see.
"We could make a fuss (by opposing the bill), but I don't think it's going to do any good and I think it's going to create some bad will that will hurt us down the road."