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City, county trade shots over water extensions

By blocking a water line extension for a vacation cabin development in Horse Shoe, Henderson County commissioners may have reignited the water war with the city of Hendersonville.


Last Tuesday night commissioners refused in a 4-0 vote to sign off on a request from a Horse Shoe Farm landowner to connect to the city’s water system, saying that the Hendersonville City Council had made no progress on a long-standing commitment to equalize water rates for customers inside and outside the city limits. (Commissioner Bill Lapsley was absent.) Like most city-owned utility systems, Hendersonville charges non-city water customers more than city users. Currently, county users pay 145 percent of the city customer rate.
If it applies to all city waterline extensions outside the city limits, the commissioners’ action could radically restrict development in communities within the broad service area of Hendersonville’s water system. The immediate consequence is that Horse Shoe Farm developer John Turchin would have to scramble for an alternative to the city water line. Longer term, the effect on growth could be more far-reaching. The recently approved 700-home development on the former Tap Root dairy farm land, for instance, plans to tie on to the city water system. The city and county have long had an agreement under which the city notifies the county of water extension requests beyond its borders and seeks the OK from the Board of Commissioners for each request. Until recently, commissioners have routinely granted the requests.
Commissioner Michael Edney, who pulled the item from the board’s consent agenda, told his fellow commissioners he had reviewed the city’s budget.
“There’s no mention of equalizing rates,” he said. The debt service for the water and sewer system is rising, he said, suggesting the city needs the current revenue structure to pay off loans.
“I’ve been following that for the last 16 years,” Chairman Grady Hawkins said. The promise of “equalizing rates over 10 years is like waiting for the 12th of never. It’s never going to happen as long as the city has a monopoly on water and it’s just not fair to the citizens of the county.”
When Commissioner Rebecca McCall asked how the developer would get water if not from the city of Hendersonville, Edney responded “the city of Asheville and Mother Nature and wells.”

‘Short sighted and unnecessary’

County Manager Steve Wyatt said Monday commissioners would approve the water line if the city adjusts the rate for county customers.
“They didn’t block it,” he said. “They approved it actually with a condition that the water rates not be discriminatory against these new customers but be equalized at same rate. They didn’t block it. They approved it with a condition.”
Wyatt said he had notified City Manager John Connet of the commissioners’ action and “I understand that he and Commissioner Edney have had a conversation.”
Edney said in a message that he was deferring to Grady Hawkins and Bill Lapsley to comment because “they are chair and vice chair.”
In a news release it sent out on Friday, the city called the county’s vote a “shortsighted and unnecessary” action that would jeopardize affordable housing projects, business expansion and industrial recruitment.
“The placement of conditions on a request to extend public water service to projects that have been previously approved by Henderson County, because of philosophical differences over the management of the utility, is unfortunate for these property owners,” the city said. “These conditions will limit the public’s access to safe reliable drinking water, reduce access to fire protection and increase insurance rates for county residents and businesses.”
In its news release the city listed five actions the City Council has taken over the past seven years in an effort to meet the county’s demands:

• The City Council adopted a resolution of intent to follow the water and sewer rate schedule through 2030. The rate schedule details the equalization of rates over 10 years while still covering the costs of upcoming loans for infrastructure improvement projects. In the current budget, the City Council set the rate differential at 145 percent for water service bringing inside and outside rates closer according to the phased plan.
• The City Council amended the rate schedule in 2016 to charge all public schools in Henderson County the inside water and sewer rates.
• The City Council hired an independent facilitator to interview representatives from Henderson County, local municipalities, economic development agencies, and state representatives to gain an understanding of concerns regarding the operation of the Hendersonville Utility System. As a result, the city reinstated the Water and Sewer Advisory Council to allow for continuous input from all stakeholders. The Advisory Council continues to meet quarterly.
• When the city invited Henderson County to participate in the development of countywide water and sewer master plans, the county declined.
• The city has completed several water line extension projects to serve economic development projects throughout Henderson County. The projects have been completed in partnership with AgHC, the Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development and Henderson County.

Edney ‘owes us an apology’

City Council member Jeff Miller said he was infuriated at Edney’s comments and the commissioners’ action.
“We passed a resolution to reduce the rates in no more than 10 years and it’s already in our budget showing the different in the increase,” he said. “It was a resolution and it was voted 3-2 in favor of it. What he said was just incorrect.”
Miller has supported equalizing rates quicker than 10 years.
“We all know that political bodies can change their mind — one council does not have to do what another council says — but I do not see this changing,” he continued. “Even staff recommended that this be done. I would have liked it to have been five years but the best I could get was 10 years” in a 3-2 vote.
“When you have that many customers outside I think the best thing to do is equalize the rates. The truth is there if anyone wants to see what was there and what we said. We sent everything to (Edney).
“Personally I think Michael Edney owes us a public apology for what he said. If he thinks he’s blackmailing us, it’s not going to work because we are doing the best we can with the votes we have and we are on the path to equalizing the rates. We had never had one complaint (from county customers about rates) and they have never had one complaint.
“They didn’t bother asking us a question. We have it in writing. It was via a resolution and it’s in the budget. He should at a minimum back it up but I think he owes us an apology just as public as the one he brought it up in. It was wrong.”