Paying the piper

Passing a new budget resolution and agreeing to hire additional legal counsel were the two top items at the May 15 meeting of the board of the Metropolitan Sewerage District of Buncombe County.

The preliminary budget for the public agency, totaling roughly $40 million, includes a 2.5 percent rate increase for domestic users, a $16.7 million investment in capital improvements, a 3.5 percent average rate increase for industrial users and a 2.1 percent cost-of-living (COLA) pay increase for employees. Two of the biggest capital-improvement projects involve updating sewer pipes in Swannanoa (Old US. 70 at Grovemont) and north Asheville (Merrimon Avenue at Stratford Road).

“The methodology that MSD uses,” explains Tom Hartye, general manager, “is not to do erratic rate increases, but to do small, incremental ones.” Accordingly, the agency's 15-year business plan — which started in 2009 — has projected the same 2.5 percent increase for domestic rates each fiscal year from 2013 to 2023 (leveling off from a high of 3.75 percent in 2010). The rate increase boils down to 67 cents a month for a typical domestic user.

Scott Powell, director of finance for the agency, notes that MSD does well in comparison to other sewer providers in Region IV of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as well as water providers in Buncombe County. “Typically, sewer bills are 20 percent greater than water bills,” he said. “Ours, as of last year, was 6.6 percent.”

Final approval of the 2013-2014 budget will take place at the board’s June meeting.

The selection of a law firm happened following a closed session with the agency’s attorney, William Clarke, to discuss legal action filed on May 14 in Wake County Superior Court by the city of Asheville. The action challenges the constitutionality of House Bill 488, the recently passed state legislation that would force the merger of the Asheville water system with MSD.

The city also names MSD as a party to the suit. Following the consultation with their attorney, the board voted in open session to hire Smith Moore Leatherwood — active in the Southeast and experienced in governmental law. Asheville Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer joined her MSD board colleagues in the unanimous decision. (Asheville Council member and MSD board appointee Chris Pelly was absent.)

Board members offered little discussion of what had been major MSD news a few weeks ago — the accidental spill of millions of gallons of raw sewage into the French Broad River on April 30. No audience members spoke or raised questions during the public comment period, and Hartye referred to the incident only briefly. He noted that he had sent ongoing reports to board members during and after the incident, and held a post-spill, "lessons learned" session with MSD staff on technical issues and emergency communications.

In just one of the ongoing updates Hartye filed, there were stark logistics of the spill time (8:35 a.m. till 2:45 p.m.), flow rate (0.95 million gallons per hour), river flow (192.5 million gallons per hour), and the hours the plume passed by the towns of Marshall (approximately 9 p.m.) and Hot Springs (approximately 2 a.m. the following morning). The river was considered back to normal, as ascertained by testing, by late day on May 1 or early on May 2.

Bill Stanley, Buncombe County representative and former commissioner, used his position as acting chair in the absence of MSD Chairman Steve Aceto to call for “a great round of applause for our staff for handling this mess” — as he described the emergency situation and cleanup. Commissioners Ellen Frost and Joe Belcher, also Buncombe County appointees to the board, shared his enthusiasm. Frost spoke specifically of the “transparency” exhibited during the event, and Belcher noted that he had visited the site during the spill and observed firsthand how hard everyone had worked.

Hartye, following the meeting, shared a Spill Incident Report Summary that the board had received, detailing the advance planning and instructions as well as what led up to the spill — specifically, a contractor’s failure to follow procedure. The report also discusses the timeline of the incident and actions that were taken once the “code-red” alarm was issued by MSD.

Disciplinary action was taken against one MSD employee who had accompanied the contract workers to the site, Hartye told Xpress, but there is no legal action at this time regarding the contractor. MSD is currently awaiting a decision by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources regarding potential fines in the incident.

“We will … deal with the contractor concerning those [fines] and other miscellaneous costs at that time,” Hartye said.

— Nelda Holder can be reached at nfholder@gmail.com.

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