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Lapsley praises water legislation as 'major step forward'

Henderson County Commissioner Bill Lapsley is praising proposed legislation filed by Rep. Chuck McGrady as a "major step forward" and an opportunity for local officials to resolve disputes over water rates and water system governance "over the next several months and keep Raleigh out of the picture."

Lapsley issued a statement on Wednesday that he said "presents the commissioners' position" on two bills.

McGrady filed two bills this week on water and sewer issues in Henderson and Buncombe counties. One would change the governance of the Metropolitan Sewerage District, which serves Buncombe and northern Henderson counties. The other would bar cities from charging differential water rates unless they got approval from the Local Government Commission, a state agency that oversees city and county budgeting, borrowing and financing.

McGrady's bill was slightly more benign that a version the Board of Commissioners endorsed, which would have put Hendersonville's water system under the jurisdiction of the North Carolina Utilities Commission, which regulates private water systems in the state. City officials said they were surprised that McGrady filed a bill that would regulate city water rates because they left a water summit on Friday believing that negotiations would continue. McGrady says so, too, but said he needed to file the bill within the House's deadline and wants to see talks continue.

Lapsley envisions that, too.

"The governance model for the city of Hendersonville is out of balance as was pointed out at the county commissioners meeting on April 3," he said. The way to correct this situation is for representatives of the elected officials representing all the customers to get together and form a new governance approach. HB 718 provides for a Legislative Study Committee to review this situation and make recommendations for specific legislation to address this issue."

Resolving the dispute locally "has always been the position of the commissioners — the intervention of the N.C. Utilities Commission was introduced by the County Commission as the alternative of last resort," he added. "Let's see if the parties involved take advantage of this opportunity."

Lapsley said HB 718 also addresses the collapse of a 1994 agreement between Henderson and Buncombe counties and the city of Asheville that was supposed to give Henderson County ratepayers a voice in the Asheville water system governance. Asheville terminated the agreement in 2005, ending any chance of Henderson County influence on the city's water system, which serves "a substantial customer base in northern Henderson County."

A separate bill, HB 764, deals with a similar disputeover governance of Metropolitan Sewerage District and Henderson County's Cane Creek Water & Sewer District. Cane Creek customers have no seats on the MSD board. "This bill will correct that situation and give all of the customers equal representation in the setting of policies," Lapsley said. "It will also reduce the sewer rates for Henderson County customers to match the uniform rate that currently applies to all of the other MSD customers located in Boncombe County."

representation 

a meeting Friday with officials from Henderson and Buncombe counties, Hendersonville and Asheville and other legislators from both counties, including state Sen. Chuck Edwards. Hendersonville officials came away from the meeting confident that McGrady would hold off moving ahead on any plan that would heavily regulate the city water system.

McGrady filed a bill that bars cities from charging differential rates unless they get state approval.

“We thought we had a good meeting Friday but obviously Chuck has escalated things,” said Hendersonville mayor pro tem Caraker, who represented the city along with Councilman Ron Stephens. “We’re going to work on bringing our inside and outside rates closer together. And we would welcome continuing the conversation with the county to get our water utility and our sewer utility more responsive according to the county’s criticism.

“Chuck told us he was going to file a bill as a placeholder. He didn’t indicate it was going to be this bill, which is quite a surprise,” Caraker added. “We were perfectly willing to have the rate structure conversation but obviously Chuck thinks about it over the weekend and decides this was not quick enough.”

‘Productive in tone and substance’

The City Council had been bracing for an attack in the form of legislation ever since the Board of Commissioners failed in an effort to force the city into ceding its water system to a countywide authority. McGrady’s bill bars cities from shifting water revenue to any other purpose. The proposed law would allow the expenditure of enterprise fund revenue for things like construction and new pipelines, repaying debt and paying into a city’s general fund for officials’ time devoted to utilities management and other shared costs such as vehicle maintenance.

Cities could charge outside users a different rate only if the Local Government Commission, a state board that oversees local government finances, approved the rates after a public hearing. Instead of targeting Asheville specifically, as McGrady and the Legislature did two years ago with a bill invalidated by the state Supreme Court, or targeting Hendersonville, the bill applies statewide.

“It does (apply to Hendersonville) to the extent that it’s a statewide bill,” McGrady said. “It applies to everybody.”