A seemingly straightforward meeting of the board of the Metropolitan Sewerage District of Buncombe County took two surprising turns on Wednesday afternoon. One led to a tongue-in-cheek staff report on a private sewer-line failure that took more than two years to resolve. The other led to a vote on withdrawing a December proposal to the city of Asheville regarding the possible merger of water and sewer management — an action that was rejected.
The meeting moved at a fast clip until Tom Hartye, general manager, was tapped for his report. Hartye briefly outlined the private sewer rehabilitation process the agency has operated for some years, identifying and bringing into the system certain failing private distribution lines. Staff members Ken Stines and Mike Stamey, collection system construction and maintenance directors, then took over with an illustrated report on a worst-case scenario — an actual episode of private-line failure involving several families and more than two years of negotiation. MSD ultimately had to call on the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Buncombe County Health Department, The Mediation Center, and the Buncombe sheriff (and some watchful deputies). The story pointed out how complicated problem-solving can become, as well as how seriously staff must take safety. But the good-humored narrative left the board and audience chuckling.
Hartye then took up several business issues, including the agency’s standing in the recently released University of North Carolina Environmental Finance Center’s 2012 report on financial performance benchmarks for water and wastewater. He noted that the district performed “at or near the highest level for every benchmark.” (The full report is available here.)
Billy Clarke, the agency’s attorney, updated the board on the status of current legislation (HB 488) requiring consolidation of the Asheville water system and MSD, and creating a regional water and sewerage district entity to replace the existing MSD. Clarke highlighted several features of the current version of the bill (which has passed in the House and is now under consideration in the Senate). He noted that it transfers all assets and outstanding debts of the public water system to MSD, and in turn transfers all assets and outstanding debts of MSD to the new MWSD created by the bill. The MWSD would be governed by a 15-member board (the current 12 seats plus three members from Henderson County).
Clarke said a change has been made in the bill that will require the approval of municipalities when any construction takes place in their jurisdiction. “I think that would be cumbersome,” he told the board. “There’s some language in there you need to work with.”
Following Clarke’s review, board member Glenn Kelly, Biltmore Forest commissioner and MSD representative, brought up the board’s December proposal to the city, offering — among other things — a $57 million cash settlement for the prospective merger of the two systems. The letter to the city came under an earlier legislative directive that no forced-merger legislation would be filed if the parties were negotiating a merger “in good faith.” Because the new legislation requires direct transfer of assets without compensation, and because there had never been a response from the city, say MSD officials, Kelly said the MSD offer “ought to be withdrawn.” He moved for withdrawal, effective immediately. The motion was seconded by Bill Stanley, former commissioner and continuing Buncombe County representative.
Discussion included an a question from Asheville appointee Bill Russell, former Asheville council member, as to whether negotiations and “the efforts of the last 18 months,” were now off the table because of the new bill.
“Once it’s enacted,” responded Asheville Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer, MSD board member as well as city negotiator regarding the legislatively proposed merger. She added that she had seen the MSD board’s December action as more of a “study” than a proposal, and she commented that withdrawing the negotiation figure of $57 million would be “fairly mean-spirited … but I understand the rationale.”
“I’d want to know if there is a real risk to withdrawing,” said Steve Aceto, board chair and Montreat representative. “My understanding is that we did intend that to be an offer [but] as it turned out, there really was no negotiation at all that I could identify, other than the letter … but I’m very concerned about withdrawing that unless there’s a real and present danger not to.”
Kelly’s motion was eventually defeated on a 4-7 vote, with Kelly, Stanley, Woodfin Mayor Jerry Vehaun and Woodfin Water & Sewer District representative Jackie Bryson favoring withdrawal.
by Nelda Holder, contributing editor
UPDATE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Buncombe County Commissioner Joe Belcher voted in favor of withdrawal of MSD’s negotiation letter. According to MSD’s general manager, the fourth favorable vote in the voice count was instead by Jackie Bryson, as corrected above.