At its Dec. 12 meeting, the Metropolitan Sewerage District board voted to formally offer the city of Asheville $57 million over 50 years for the water system. Several members expressed doubts about the fairness of the process, but a motion to add their reservations failed.
MSD board members emphasized that they were simply starting a process, and that the compensation offer — which is far too low, say city leaders — isn’t final. Board members Asheville City Council member Chris Pelly and former Council member Bill Russell were the only ones to vote against the proposal. (The city’s third representative on the MSD board, Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer, was absent.)
“Many think this is just robbery. This is not a win-win for the ratepayers at all, it’s a tie-tie and big loser for the city of Asheville,” Russell said. “It’s just wrong. It makes me sick.”
Pelly emphasized the “real hole” losing the water system will create in the city budget: roughly $3.7 million a year according to an analysis by city staff.
But some fellow board members, as well as everyone who spoke during the 20-minute public comment session, voiced doubts about the proposal.
“Honestly, I’d like to see the city have more money, and I don’t really know how to go about that,” said Buncombe County board member Max Haner.
MSD Board Chair Tom Aceto emphasized that the city is free to make a counteroffer, and more than one board member noted that state Legislators were the ones pushing the idea of a merger — MSD is simply trying to figure out the best way to make that possible. “The farthest you and I can go is to put a proposal out there and see what happens,” Aceto said.
Board member Bill Stanley, a former Buncombe County commissioner, was particularly ardent in his objection to the whole process, noting, “There’s no question in my mind: I’m opposed to this,” Stanley said. “I don’t want them in Raleigh writing this for us. They don’t understand it, even the two [Reps. Tim Moffitt and Chuck McGrady] that wrote it don’t understand it. There’s no way $57 million is enough for the city. But they’re going to do what they want to do and right now they’re doing it. They’re writing [a merger bill] right now, but this brings it forward to the city.”
He also claimed that the legislation is Henderson County’s attempt to gain enough power over the system to steer development their way. “Henderson County will be in charge of our infrastructure,” Stanley predicted. “They’ll decide where the water goes, and I think that’s what [Rep.] McGrady wants. What they’ve got in mind is bad.”
Weaverville Mayor Al Root, who chairs MSD’s planning committee, recommended approving the offer, asserting that MSD has to consider the matter apolitically: Its role is not to comment on the process, but to try to craft the best model it can under the circumstances. “It’s an odd spot we find ourselves in,” Root said. “We didn’t start this process. We won’t be the ones to finish it.”
Still, he worried that the Weaverville water system’s “time in the box is coming up for state takeover.”
“‘Hell no’ isn’t an offer,” Aceto said, and MSD needs to keep local attempts to reach a deal going, so “we can go back to talking about suspended solids and right-of-ways.”
He added, “We’re having to spend so much time on this that I’m afraid the achievements of the staff are obscured.” Aceto noted a recent major reduction in waste entering the river accomplished by MSD staff. “I wish that would get a headline.”