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County rips city in resolution calling for equal water rates

Reviving a battle over who controls public water in Henderson County, county commissioners on Wednesday adopted a strongly worded resolution charging the city of Hendersonville with discriminating against customers outside the city limits and calling on the City Council to immediately equalize all water rates and fees. Later Wednesday morning, the city issued a news release rebutting several of the county's points while declaring that the City Council is open to conversations on water policy.

County commissioners for years have argued that the city should charge city and outside users the same rate and has also asked the city to cede control of the water system to a city-county water authority.
About 70 percent of city water customers are outside the city, one of the highest percentages among municipal water systems that serve outside users. The City Council in the past has made available reports showing that its upcharge for outside users is less than the average for city water systems.

“This imbalance of the customer base has created a situation where the governing board of the city of Hendersonville is not accountable to the vast majority of system customers, effectively disenfranchising that customer base,” the resolution said. The disenfranchised customers are left with “no effective recourse,” as they’re represented by county commissioners and legislators. The resolution calls for the city to equalize all rates, fees and policies throughout the county by July 1.
The resolution could signal a willingness by the commissioners, if the city fails to meet its demand, to again seek a resolution through the Legislature, as it tried two years ago. In 2017, state Rep. Chuck McGrady filed a bill that would explore changing the governance of city water systems and potentially force the city form a water authority that would include significant representation from county users.

A half hour later, Commissioner Bill Lapsley, who presented the water resolution, issued an olive branch to the city. He said he wanted to put in the record his support for the city's request for $200,000 to fund school resource officers in the four county schools in the city limits. Commissioners did not immediately react to Lapsley's request on the SROs.

The city responded less than two hours later with a written statement, declaring that council members are open to discussion on water policy issues and pointing out that the city had made concessions on outside city water and sewer rates.

“We are open to having discussions with the Commissioners and over the years have established multiple channels to facilitate these types of conversations,” said City Councilman Jeff Miller.

The Henderson County Water and Sewer Advisory Council, a group involving governing board members from all the local municipalities, Henderson County, industry and business representatives as well as utility customers from inside and outside the Hendersonville city limits, meets quarterly throughout the county. The Hendersonville Water and Sewer Department also operates a Water and Sewer Technical Advisory Committee charged with serving as an advisory board to offer input and feedback to the utility. County officials have approached neither group with concerns relating to the Board of Commissioners resolution, the city said.

In 2000, Henderson County made an agreement with the City called the Mud Creek Sewer Agreement that outlined the maximum rate differentials between sewer customers living inside and outside the Hendersonville city limits.

“Part of the contract that Henderson County negotiated was to keep the difference in rates under 160 percent,” Miller said in the news release. “In recent years, City Council took that one step further and established a policy that the rate differential for both water and sewer should not exceed 150 percent.” 

In October 2018, when the City offered to take another look at the agreement, the county’s representative on the Advisory Council declined to discuss the topic, the city's news release said.

When the Water and Sewer budget, capital projects and rate summary were presented to the Water and Sewer Advisory Council at a meeting on April 29,  no questions or concerns were brought to the City. The proposed budgets and rates were also presented to the Water and Sewer Technical Advisory Committee, Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development, Business Advisory Committee, Partners for Economic Progress and industry neighborhood meetings, the city said.

“This resolution has been brought forth without warning and very late into the budgeting process,” City Manager John Connet said. “The City has continued to encourage open discussion on this topic, but instead of conversation, we are being met with demands.” The county's deadline, Connet said, is not ideal for taking on the complexities of a countywide water and sewer interlocal agreement.

“We are, however, always willing to continue this conversation,” Connet added. “We hope the County will join us in meaningful discussion moving forward.”