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McGrady 'very disappointed' with Buncombe over MSD vote

State Rep. Chuck McGrady shown in a Lightning file photo. State Rep. Chuck McGrady shown in a Lightning file photo.

Defying the wishes of Henderson County commissioners and state Rep. Chuck McGrady, the governing board of an Asheville-based sewer system on Wednesday shot down a proposal to merge with a Henderson County-owned system and add three Henderson County representatives to the MSD board.

The Metropolitan Sewer District voted 10-1 against the new makeup after board members from Buncombe, Asheville and other Buncombe towns served by the utility questioned the motives of McGrady and Henderson County officials.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Henderson County Commissioner Bill Lapsley, who attended the meeting and spoke in favor of the change.

The lopsided vote was a stunning setback to the efforts of Henderson County to promote a cooperative, regional approach to providing water and service through a governing body with representation from a broad customer base. Given the decisive no vote, Lapsley said he did not see how the issue would be revived.

“It’s off the table. They voted 10-1 not to do it,” he said.

A state law McGrady sponsored last spring would have required the Metropolitan Sewer District to add the Henderson County representatives had it voted to merge with the Cane Creek Sewer District, as McGrady and the Henderson County commissioners wanted. The Cane Creek Sewer District, a county-owned utility, serves 3,700 customers in northern Henderson County.

McGrady, a former Henderson County commissioner, and the current Board of Commissioners, with Lapsley in the lead, have argued for what they paint as regional cooperation. The attempt to think beyond city and county lines — and put more Henderson County officials on governing boards — is viewed with suspicion by Asheville city officials.

McGrady also attended to advocate for the merger and new board makeup.

“Sewer ought to be handled on a regional basis and these political boundaries we have I don't think are the way we ought to handle sewer — or water for that matter, but we're just here about sewer,” McGrady said, according to a report in the Asheville Citizen-Times.

The Cane Creek Sewer District is a collection system, not a treatment system. It owns the sewer lines that carry sewage to the MSD plant in Woodfin, which treats the effluent for a fee. Henderson County officials have long complained that Cane Creek customers pay higher sewer rates than MSD customers.

‘Oh, this is a conspiracy’

Adding three members from Henderson County, MSD members said, would give Henderson County a disproportionate share of the overall membership board. The county would have 20 percent of the appointees on the 15-member board, on behalf of a Cane Creek customer base that amounts to just 7 percent of the total.

Lapsley scoffed at the notion that adding Cane Creek to the MSD and adding Henderson County representatives was anything more than a straightforward effort at regional cooperation.

“There would be one from Mills River, one from Fletcher and one of the county commissioners to represent the unincorporated area so that all the customers in the Cane Creek district are represented,” he said. “We weren’t going to have county people to vote together to take over MSD. That’s absurd. That was said. ‘Oh, this is a conspiracy.’ Several people said that. ‘There’s a sinister thing going on here. Henderson County — they've been pretty belligerent about this.’”

Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer and other MSD board members suggested last month that the MSD ought to withhold support for the change until it becomes clear what if anything the Legislature will do about city- and county-owned utilities. McGrady pushed through another bill this year that calls for a study of local utilities, their rates and governance. Manheimer and other Asheville officials fear that study will be used to justify putting municipal and county water and sewer systems under state control.

“I really think that all that goodwill was torpedoed when Chuck got his new study committee, which is clearly starting that fight all over again,” said Barry Summers, an activist on Asheville area water issues who opposed a bill McGrady sponsored that would have turned over Asheville’s water system to the MSD. (The state Supreme Court invalidated the law in 2016.)

“Over the past year he’s been talking about how he’s got another way to get it done,” Summer said. “It was exactly a year ago that he said ‘there’s more than one way to skin the cat.’”

Summers thinks Henderson County lost support from the Buncombe officials when word got out about the new legislative study committee. On Nov. 15, a week after the committee’s formation and scope of work was announced, the MSD took up the proposed Cane Creek merger and voted to postpone a decision.

“They brought it up at that board meeting,” Summers said. The tenor of the discussion was, “That’s looking at regional of water and sewer and we all know what that means,” he said. “They figured he was very likely taking another swing at not just Asheville but he’s talking about taking control of Hendersonville’s system, too. So everybody’s realizing he’s really going for this.”

 

McGrady ‘very disappointed’

McGrady, who called Summers “venomous,” acknowledges he continues to look for ways to guide Buncombe and Henderson counties and the cities of Asheville and Hendersonville to more regional solutions in water and sewer. Asheville and Buncombe officials ginned up opposition in a mistaken interpretation of his motives, he said.

“Basically no one had a problem with Henderson County joining MSD,” he said. The city (of Asheville) had said that for a long time. Buncombe County has said that for a long time.”

Then Asheville officials began spreading the word that the change in the makeup would cause Asheville to lose a seat on the MSD board.

“I didn’t realize there was any problem until a month ago,” McGrady said. “I get a call from Mayor Manheimer and she’s saying there were problems here, Henderson County was going to be overrepresented.”

Manheimer also expressed concern about the legislative study committee.

“That was very problematic because I had done exactly what I told people I would do,” he said. McGrady said his goal last spring was to try to create “a mechanism reflecting agreements with respect to water.”

“I was really surprised that Mayor Manheimer now was expressing this concern that was part of the stuff being put forward by the activist known as Barry Summers,” he said. “She made the motion” to delay action on the Cane Creek merger.

“I’m very disappointed,” he added. “I feel like Asheville reneged on its agreement. I’m very disappointed with Buncombe County.”

McGrady expressed frustration with the parochialism that characterizes water and sewer issues, in the form in this case of one representative asking, “What’s in it for Asheville?”

“I said it’s good policy. We ought to deal with these things on a regional basis. Henderson County is giving up control of sewer to work in a regional manner. It makes sense. We have to work on water and sewer and transportation and other things on a regional basis.”

For now, that looks like a remote possibility. A legislative tweak to make the agreement more palatable to the MSD members is unlikely, at least in the near term.

“It would take unanimity among the affected parties, which would mean all the Buncombe County and all the Henderson legislators would have to be for it,” McGrady said. “And then getting it through in the short session would be hard and moreover I’m not even sure I’ve got the stomach for it.”

From Henderson County’s point of view, status quo sustains rate inequity.

“Let’s keep the rates up in Henderson County while giving us no representation,” he said. “And then they wonder why they can’t get cooperation on issues they care about.”

The MSD vote comes three years after Henderson County Commission Chair Michael Edney and Manheimer worked out an agreement to resolve a 20-year-old dispute over a water plant the city of Asheville built on the Mills River. In exchange, Asheville gave a 137-acres site in Bent Creek to Henderson County. When the Asheville City Council and Henderson County Board of Commissioners settled the dispute, it appeared that the two bodies could be ready to work more cooperatively on regional utility issues. Manheimer even made a symbolic gesture after the council vote, fastening a pin depicting the Henderson County Historic Courthouse on her lapel above a city of Asheville pin.

Wednesday’s stunning smackdown of the sewer system merger could reignite the mistrust that has long bedeviled any chance of regional cooperation. The 10-1 vote, Lapsley said, suggests that Asheville “has no interest in joint venturing with Henderson County on any utilities.”