At the Feb. 27 Asheville City Council meeting, it became clear that tensions still simmer in a tussle over regional water systems that goes back decades.
The broader context includes a 2016 N.C. Supreme Court decision that ruled unconstitutional a 2013 bill co-sponsored by Hendersonville Rep. Chuck McGrady that would have transferred ownership of Asheville’s municipal water system to Buncombe County’s Metropolitan Sewerage District.
Then, in December, MSD voted down a proposal, which McGrady supported, to include Henderson County’s Cane Creek Water and Sewer District in in the MSD. The move would have given Henderson County representatives three seats on an expanded 15-member board. Cane Creek currently uses its own lines to transport sewage to the MSD plant in Woodfin, but McGrady and Henderson County officials have complained its customers pay more for the service than do MSD customers.
According to MSD General Manager Tom Hartye, the utility charges the same consumption rate to all its customers, including its 4,000 accounts in Cane Creek. But Cane Creek residents pay a flat fee of $16.42 per month, which is set by the Henderson County Board of Commissioners, who serve as the trustees for the Cane Creek Water and Sewer District. Other MSD customers pay a $9 monthly flat fee, Hartye says.
Now, McGrady is making the rounds of local government bodies to talk up a new study committee in the state legislature set up to explore regionalization of water and sewer systems. He spoke at the Hendersonville City Council on Feb. 6, at the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners on Feb. 20 (see “McGrady talks regional water systems at County Commission”), and at the Henderson County Board of Commissioners on Feb. 21. On Feb. 27, it was Asheville City Council’s turn to hear what he had to say.
In his presentation to Council, McGrady bemoaned the MSD decision not to include Henderson County representation and he appealed to Council to approve a new interlocal agreement. He laid out two pitches: “My first is if you will take up the water agreement and hopefully largely deal with water issues between Henderson County and the city of Asheville, and then secondly, that you’ll help me work on the MSD issue,” McGrady said. “I would love to have your help on getting to a better place on that.”
Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, who along withVice Mayor Gwen Wisler sits on the MSD board, clarified that the interlocal agreement establishes an understanding between Henderson County and Asheville for waterline extensions, should the need arise. She added that it would let Asheville have the final say in decisions related to line extensions, and she hopes to bring the interlocal agreement before Council around the same time as it comes up at the Henderson County Commission.
Getting to the crux of the matter, Council member Julie Mayfield asked McGrady to speak to past concerns in Asheville about McGrady’s efforts to legislate a takeover of Asheville’s water. “What I’m hearing you say is that we are past the time when anyone is looking to force a merger or take over or otherwise seize or remove from the control of the city of Asheville its water system,” she said.
McGrady appeared to agree with that statement, but left the door open. “No, I have absolutely no interest in going down that road. Unless I’m forced, and I don’t think I’m going to be forced, because I’m trying to disconnect these issues from each other,” he said. “I do not expect I will have any legislation having to do with Asheville’s water system.”
Council member Vijay Kapoor asked McGrady under what circumstances he might be “forced,” to which McGrady responded, “We don’t take care of the MSD issue, then I’m going to have to figure out how to push it. Because my constituents are paying too much for their sewer and they are underrepresented. And if Buncombe County and its various cities can’t help me figure out how to get around that, then the question becomes, what do I do about it?”
The “underrepresentation” to which McGrady referred reflects a common refrain in his remarks, that 70 percent of Hendersonville water customers live outside city limits and so do not have elected officials they can go to (or vote out) when they are unhappy about their rates.
Manheimer said she understands McGrady’s concern about customers not having representation but alluded to the ongoing challenge of working with state legislators while the fight for Asheville’s water still haunts the conversation. “It’s hard to strike a deal, as it were, when there’s this looming sort of unknown threat,” she said. “We have been acting under a looming threat since I’ve been in office, since 2009. I would say we’re in a calmer time period than we have been, so that’s good. It was quite a fight to hold on to our water system.”
McGrady acknowledged his difficult relationship with Asheville City Council. “There’s a lot of mistrust here. I get that,” he said. “But you don’t gain trust by not trying to take small steps and move forward, and that’s what I’m trying to do here.”
Manheimer remained cautiously open to further discussion on regional water issues. “I’m hopeful we can find some resolution around all this, because I think some of these things are ultimately probably good,” she said.
Residents who spoke during public comment on McGrady’s presentation were not as conciliatory. Asheville resident Beth Jezek said, “We heard Rep. McGrady say just a few minutes ago, ‘If I’m forced to, we will use the legislature to take the water, if you don’t give me what I want.’ I didn’t know that was the way democracy worked.”
Woodfin resident Barry Summers pointed out that the fight over regionalization of water systems goes back to the 1990s. “The attractive solution is to blame Asheville and Buncombe County for Henderson County’s inability to build and maintain and operate and have control of their own water and sewer infrastructure. I think that’s what’s been driving this for the past 20 years,” he said. He added that he’s not opposed to regionalizing water systems, but he implored McGrady not to use force to do so.
Asheville resident Sam Speciale also raised the specter of the disagreement over Asheville’s water. “The courts and our citizens soundly rejected that attempt to seize the water, going so far as defeating two of the three of the local legislators who pushed for the water system, leaving Mr. McGrady left to fight that battle,” he said. “But he is not without weapons: Voilá, he became co-chair of the house committee to study rates and transfers/public enterprises, a long name for something that might give free rein for all sorts of actions, especially that GOP favorite, privatization.” Speciale brandished a thick volume of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America as he warned against the tyranny of the majority.
Asheville stands against gun violence
In the wake of the Feb. 14 shooting at a school in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 people and renewed the debate over gun control, Asheville City Council unanimously approved a resolution on the prevention of gun violence at its Feb. 27 meeting.
Manheimer read aloud the resolution, which calls for a ban on the manufacturing, transferring and possession of assault weapons, and received applause from some in the audience. “I personally am pretty tired of political tension around this issue and would hope that the Congress would act immediately to reinstitute the ban on assault weapons,” she said. “Given the conversation that’s happening in this country right now … I felt like it would be a good thing for the Asheville City Council to make their opinion known on this issue.”
During public comment, seniors from T.C. Roberson High School issued pleas that local, state and national government officials take the issue of gun violence seriously. “While sending condolences to the victims and survivors is appropriate and appreciated, further action needs to be taken. Enough is enough. Change is long overdue,” student Caroline Bowers said. “To those who say this movement is just another flare-up and rallying cry from the youth that will die down in a few months with no true legislative change, I would argue that this instance is different. It has to be different. Tangible change is in fact feasible, and it is just on the horizon.”
Student Sean McDowell referenced the 1999 Columbine High School incident and the many shootings since then in depicting the tension his generation feels each day at school. “Due to the fact that I am only 18 years old, I do not know what’s it’s like to live in a country without mass school shootings,” he said. He advocated for more legislation to protect students and all Americans, including tighter background checks on gun sales, increased security at schools and a ban on semiautomatic rifles.
After public comment, Manheimer said while she understands the calls for better mental health services and school security, she is “personally very exasperated” about the parts of the conversation that don’t deal directly with regulating guns. That said, she admitted there’s not much Asheville can do about it. “Just to be clear, cities and counties in North Carolina have very limited authority over gun control,” she said.
Mayfield mentioned that on March 24 there will be a March for Our Lives held in Asheville and encouraged people to attend if they are interested in the issue.
In other business
City Council approved a resolution proclaiming March 10 as “Zelda Fitzgerald Day” and one proclaiming March 19-25 as “Asheville Climate Week.” It also approved a resolution in memory of the Rev. Billy Graham, a longtime Montreat resident who died Feb. 21.
Not everyone in attendance at the meeting was supportive of City Council’s decision to honor Graham, however. Asheville resident Casey Campfield read several quotes in which Graham spoke derogatorily of homosexuality, the AIDS epidemic, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jewish people in the American media. “The fact that you would use this platform to honor Billy Graham without even a single mention of his checkered past is beyond cowardly and a great disappointment to many of your constituents,” Campfield said.
Also in public comment, three people who run a car service, an airport shuttle and a trolley service said they feel they are unfairly charged for commercial insurance and airport fees that individual drivers of Uber and Lyft do not have to pay.
During the meeting, Council also heard an update on the Charlotte Street Innovation District and approved the consent agenda.
The next City Council meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, March 13, at 5 p.m. at City Hall.
Editor’s note: This article was updated at 1:26 p.m. on Feb. 28. The actual difference in charges paid by Cane Creek customers versus other MSD customers was added.