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City sees threat in regional water talk

Henderson County legislators assured Hendersonville officials that legislation forcing a regional authority takeover of Asheville's city water system is not a threat to Hendersonville's water system, state Rep. Chuck McGrady said. The assurance has not convinced city officials that their system won't become part of a regional system.

The Hendersonville City Council was set to consider a resolution last week that opposed "the involuntary conveyance" of Asheville's city water system to the regional Metropolitan Sewer District. A legislative study ordered in a bill sponsored by Rep. Tim Moffitt recommended the takeover of the Asheville water system by the MSD. McGrady said Monday he expects a bill to be filed early in the session to force the takeover.
A resolution drafted by the city of Asheville opposes the move. It declares that "the forced taking of any local government infrastructure sets a dangerous precedent" that "will have a chilling effect on any local government investing in needed infrastructure in the future ..."
The Hendersonville City Council was scheduled to take up the resolution last week when Mayor Barbara Volk pulled the item from consideration.
"We just didn't feel we should be voting on it since we're technically part of it," she said. "Rather than working through a resolution we're working directly with our representatives and senators. (Former city manager) Bo Ferguson and I talked a lot about it and we thought it was best because there was controversy we would step back and not be a part of the resolution."
She said she opposes any effort to pull Hendersonville into a regional water authority.
"I guess I'm not sure what the problem is that it's trying to solve," she said. "I haven't heard of any business or industry or developments that have not been able to get water. I don't understand why there's a big rush on to get a regional authority."
Council members made clear in a meeting Tuesday that they do not feel the issue is put to rest. During a discussion of challenges that a new city manager would face, council members brought up the water system and the push for a regional approach to provide water and sewer in the Henderson-Buncombe area.
"We are not out of the soup. We are just sitting on the edge of the pot right now," said Councilman Steve Caraker.
Rep. McGrady said the Asheville and Hendersonville situations are not the same because a report showed inefficiencies with Asheville's water system that do not exist in Hendersonville's system.
"There's nothing in the legislation that relates to Hendersonville water and sewer," he said. "In fact, Sen. (Tom) Apodaca and I met with Hendersonville city officials and heard their presentation on that issue and have told them this legislation will not include the city of Hendersonville."
But council members indicated during Tuesday's meeting that the assurance from McGrady and Apodaca about regional utilities legislation was anything categorical.
"Hendersonville is not included in the current legislation. That's how it was worded," Smith said.
The water system came up when the council talked about the need for a city manager to advocate for the city in the Legislature.
"Hendersonville is not out of the discussion" of regional water solutions, Smith said.
The city has expanded its water system over the years to provide water for much of the county. Requests for water service outside the city limits go through the county Board of Commissioners.
In an interview last month before he left the city for a post in Durham, Ferguson warned that a merger would potentially harm city ratepayers.
"If you've been investing in your system for 30 or 40 years you've got equity in a good system," he said. "As a customer, you've been paying for capital projects and investments that you deserve the benefits of. You create a merged utility and suddenly our customers are on the hook for somebody else's water system. If we've built a great machine, our customers deserve the benefit of that efficient machine going forward. I feel strongly that our customers would be saddled with a lot of cost with a merged system that they won't have in an independent system."