MSD board approves budget, readies for legal battle

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

The preliminary budget for the public agency, totaling roughly $40 million, must be presented in advance to the Local Government Commission of North Carolina. The final 2013-2014 budget approval will take place at the board’s June meeting. The numbers reflect a $16.7 million capital improvement investment in line with the agency’s business plan, and a 2.5 percent rate increase for domestic users — also in line with the agency’s forecasts.

“The methodology that MSD uses,” explains Tom Hartye, general manager, “ is not to do erratic rate increases, but to do small, incremental ones.” The 15-year business plan for years 2009-2023 projects the same annual 2.5 percent rate of increase for the next decade — down from a high of 3.75 percent in fiscal year 2010. That 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 its EPA Region IV, 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.”

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

The Wednesday meeting offered little discussion of what had been major MSD news during the past month — the accidental spill of millions of gallons of raw sewerage into the French Broad River on April 30. No audience members spoke or raised questions during the public comment period, and the general manager referred to the incident only briefly. He noted that he had sent ongoing reports to board members during and after the incident, and a “lessons learned” session had followed.

Details from just one of the updates Hartye filed provided 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. on 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 clean-up. His enthusiasm was echoed by Commissioners Ellen Frost and Joe Belcher, also Buncombe County appointees to the board. 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 the occurrences that led up to the spill — specifically highlighting 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 the Xpress, but there is no legal action at this time regarding the contractor. MSD is currently awaiting a decision by the N.C. 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,” he said.

by Nelda Holder, contributing editor

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