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City, county eye joint governance of water-sewer system

The Hendersonville City Council and Henderson County Board of Commissioners are eyeing a first step toward joint governance of the city’s water and sewer system, a move has the potential to either resolve a longstanding and stubborn point of conflict between the two bodies or reignite ill will over it.

A glimpse of both possible outcomes was on display Thursday night when the City Council endorsed a resolution in support of a consolidated water-sewer commission.
City and county leaders have been exploring the idea behind the scenes. City Manager John Connet, Mayor Barbara Volk and council member Jennifer Hensley joined County Manager John Mitchell, County Commission Chair Bill Lapsley and Vice Chair Rebecca McCall on a trip to Winston-Salem recently to learn about a joint commission that governs the water and sewer system throughout Forsyth County.
The utility system is managed by a commission made up of 11 members, five appointed by the city and five by the county. The utilities commission chair is appointed jointly by the chair of the county commission and the mayor of Winston-Salem.
“The city of Winston Salem owns the assets to the utility,” Connet said. “It is managed under the direction of the city manager and the utility director. But it's a commission form of government to provide for all utilities within Forsyth County and Winston-Salem.”
Connet continued: “As you know, for a number of years the county has been concerned about the governance of our utility. Seventy-some percent of our water customers are outside of the city. That continues to be an issue that's brought forth, so we thought that this is a potential way of maybe addressing some of these concerns associated with the governance but at the same time maintaining the assets owned by the city and managed by the city.”
The City Council voted unanimously last week to adopt a joint resolution in support of a “consolidated water and sewer utility commission.” Henderson County commissioners are scheduled to take up the same statement at their regular meeting on Monday night.
Consolidation could “hopefully put aside some of this long-standing debate over the governance of the system,” Connet said.
Hensley, the council’s strongest advocate for the idea, said that city administrators had proposed looking at a joint commission three years ago before Covid restrictions put the effort on ice.
“I think with all of the development that is happening in our area and in the county and the county commissioners’ desire to preserve farmland and the apple country and our desire to create infill and higher density (development) and affordable housing — I can't think of a better way for government to work together than to help create affordable housing for our residents,” she said.

'We own an asset they want to own'

The risk of ceding to the county a major role in governance of the city-owned utility system became evident when council member Jerry Smith objected to Connet's characterization of a "longstanding debate" over water system governance.
“The longstanding debate is not within the city," he said. "It's the county that always has a problem. It's not like in the city, we've been thinking, ‘Gosh, we really don't want to run this anymore.’”
Aside from the Board of Commissioners, Smith said, no one asked for this kind of change.
“It's the county's problem that we own an asset that they want to own — that's my perception,” he said. “I'm not aware of any request by the Partnership for Economic Development for something like this. My impression is they're happy with the way we work, especially when we work with them. They've not asked — thinking this is going to be an improvement upon the water and sewer system by having this commission — so I'm not aware of their requesting something like this.”
Ten or 12 years ago, when two of the county’s legislators “were talking about taking over our system, I think the system was valued at $200 million-plus at that time. Other than the goodwill of the city in how we perform our services, it's the most valuable physical asset that we own.”
Smith objected specifically to a “whereas” point that said, “it is agreed that the water and sewer system in the county should be jointly managed.’ I just can't agree to that because I've not been convinced. I'm welcome to explore but I do not agree with that statement. There's not been enough facts presented to me that it should be jointly managed because I don't think it's being mismanaged.”
While Volk and council member Lyndsey Simpson acknowledged Smith’s concerns, both endorsed the resolution, with reservations.
“I agree with Jerry in that I think part of this is to determine whether it should be jointly managed,” Volk said. “How are things going now? How would things change? Would it be an advantage to have it jointly managed? That's probably a stretch, but I'm willing to support it with reservations.”
Simpson said the council should defer to its staff’s guidance for now.
“So I think if, especially from staff’s direction it's the next right step to continue this conversation and figure out if it's something we want to do, then we should push forward with it,” she said. Smith went on to make a motion to amend the resolution changing “should” to “could.” Connet warned that the change could result in the county’s responding in kind.
“Absolutely, City Council can amend the resolution,” he said. “However, I would caution you we have an agreement with the county that if the council changes the resolution then I think you open the door for the county commissioners to change the resolution.”
Smith pounced on that.
“If we change one word in that whole thing and they can't handle that — that's probably a good sign right out of the gate of how this is going to go,” he said.
Hensley urged her colleagues to leave the resolution alone.
“This isn't tying us to anything specific and I just think it's a good stepping stone for us to have discussions in good faith,” she said. “If you don't take that first step, how do you actually ever know if it's worth it or not?”
The council agreed to Smith’s amendment on a 3-2 vote, with Simpson and Debbie Roundtree voting yes and Volk and Hensley voting no, before voting 5-0 to adopt the resolution.