Bridge over troubled water: Asheville hears from McGrady

HOLDING WATER: Rep. Chuck McGrady makes the case for regionalization of water and sewer systems at Asheville City Council on Feb. 27. Photo by Carolyn Morrisroe
HOLDING WATER: Rep. Chuck McGrady makes the case for regionalization of water and sewer systems at Asheville City Council on Feb. 27. Photo by Carolyn Morrisroe

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?”

CASCADE OF CLARIFICATION: Council member Vijay Kapoor asks Chuck McGrady what he means when he says he  might be "forced" to take action on Asheville's water, while Brian Haynes and Gwen Wisler look to McGrady for answers. Photo by Carolyn Morrisroe
CASCADE OF CLARIFICATION: Council member Vijay Kapoor asks Chuck McGrady what he means when he says he might be “forced” to take action on Asheville’s water, while Brian Haynes and Gwen Wisler look to McGrady for answers. Photo by Carolyn Morrisroe

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.

TEMPS, THEY ARE A-CHANGING: Council member Julie Mayfield, left, presents The Collider's Megan Robinson with a proclamation declaring March 16-25 to be "Asheville Climate Week" in advance of the ClimateCon event. Photo by Carolyn Morrisroe
TEMPS, THEY ARE A-CHANGIN': Council member Julie Mayfield, left, presents The Collider’s Megan Robinson with a proclamation declaring March 19-25 to be “Asheville Climate Week” in advance of the ClimateCon event. Photo by Carolyn Morrisroe

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.

About Carolyn Morrisroe
Carolyn Morrisroe served as news editor and reporter at Mountain Xpress. Follow me @CarolynMorrisro

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11 thoughts on “Bridge over troubled water: Asheville hears from McGrady

    • luther blissett

      Apparently, you’re “venomous.”

      The straightforward way for Shady McGrady to dispel suspicions that he’s operating in bad faith is for him to take a back seat, let the local officials do the talking, and wait for a call if legislation is needed for any cooperation.

      • bsummers

        Councilman Vijay Kapoor asked a question in that direction, essentially “Why not do something to dispel suspicions, prove these critics wrong, take the air out of the balloon?” Chuck did the opposite.

        This “representation issue” is what he’s hiding his intentions towards Asheville (and Hendersonville) behind. He’s been continually saying how this is unfair, unsustainable, etc., that 40% of Asheville’s water customers live outside city limits. He repeated this in the first meeting of the study committee a few weeks ago, and made it clear that he intends to legislate on it. The only “fix” as he calls it, would have to involve some form of regionalization – “giving them a voice” as he puts it, on decisions relating to the water system. Asheville will almost certainly fight having to give up control of their water system to people who are not residents, as they should. Chuck knows this – that’s why he couches it in non-threatening rhetoric that’s never very specific, etc., while running a committee that’s about to legislate on requiring “certain” municipalities to regionalize their public utilities.

        He speaks at length about how Asheville and Henderson County are working on a Memorandum of Understanding on water, and how he hopes that the MSD/Henderson County issue can be resolved, and that will take care of everything… and then he sneaks in, “Of course, we still have to take care of the representation thing.”

        Remember, Chuck has had 4 years to think about this. He started planning it on the day that Judge Howard Manning ruled against his previous attempt in Superior Court in 2014 (which was eventually affirmed by the NC Supreme Court). Chuck’s response on that day?

        “there are more than one way to skin a cat.”

        I would submit we are looking at Chuck’s “other way to skin a cat”.

        • luther blissett

          One of the more depressing aspects of local news coverage is that Buncombe and Henderson[ville] issues tend to be covered in different venues. We didn’t get to hear much about the attempt to merge the Hendersonville water system with the county system and put it under state control, even though that was a big deal in the Hendersonville council elections last year.

          If I’m reading the reporting correctly, the opposition to the Cane Creek / MSD merger was partly because it added proportionately more Henderson County members to the board than new customers, and partly because McGrady had already launched his cat-skinning, I mean regionalization study committee.

          Your quoted comments suggest that it’s a dispute between Hendersonville, Fletcher, Mills River (beer!) and the unincorporated county (apples!) over inadequate infrastructure and differential pricing, and McGrady sees Asheville water and the Buncombe MSD as the solution. And maybe it is, in terms of efficiency, but I’m not sure why Henderson County commissioners should be given a pat on the head and a seat at the table for not pulling their weight, and that sentiment is shared by Asheville and Hendersonville’s councils.

          • bsummers

            If you want a real world demonstration of this situation, here’s last week’s Henderson County Commission meeting. When faced with having to provide sewer service to a new elementary school, they decided to ‘kick the can down the road’ and do a cheap, temporary solution, rather than do business with the City of Hendersonville.


            From what I can see, this is how they’ve been “managing” their responsibilities for years: complain about Asheville, complain about Hendersonville, complain about MSD. And all the while, never commit significant funds to building their own wastewater treatment plant, for example. They were studying that right up until 2012, as I recall, and they put that on hold while the Moffitt/McGrady Asheville/MSD bill churned to collapse. Now, they’re waiting to see if Chuck McGrady will go back to his new study committee, and ̶h̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶m̶ ̶c̶o̶n̶t̶r̶o̶l̶
            ̶ sorry – “regionalize” Hendersonville’s public utilities.

          • luther blissett

            That’s an eye-opener. The majority of commissioners argue that unincorporated county residents who get their water and sewer service from Hendersonville are being stiffed (because unlike Asheville, H’ville can charge differential rates outside the city limits) but also shouldn’t be burdened with the cost of the county investing in its own infrastructure. So hey, just go with a septic field. We can afford a bigger field if we need it. Fields are cheap.

            They seem to be waiting for McGrady to reward them for years of doing things by half measures.

          • bsummers

            And the kicker? In 2012, they thought that McGrady was going to deliver them from themselves and give them three seats on a combined MSD/Asheville water/sewer authority, which would have lowered their sewer costs, and given them some say in extending Asheville water lines into their County. They complained that three seats on that Board (the same as Asheville) was not enough. Even though Henderson County would only represent 7% of the total customers of Buncombe County’s infrastructure, they thought that only 20% of the voting seats was not fair. Commissioner Mike Edney, who is now the Chairman of the Henderson County Commission, argued that they should get half the voting seats, in other words, be in a position to dominate Asheville/Buncombe’s infrastructure.


            This is the stance of the people running things down there – they feel they are owed control of someone else’s infrastructure, dammit, even though they haven’t spent the money to actually build anything themselves. This is a big part of what has been driving the insane McGrady/Moffitt “Seize Asheville’s Water” movement for years now.

    • Able Allen

      How does on “confirm” one “might” do something, Barry? I used to confirm to my friend that I might drop by his house all the time — doesn’t mean I showed up. I understand that there is potential to read into his statements, but right now it feels like a firmly veiled threat; a clear example of how political negotiation works. This isn’t burying the lead – it’s just reporting. If you want to write a commentary or a letter about how the situation should be interpreted, please be our guest. We’d be happy to have it.

      • bsummers

        The point is that Chuck has been on this PR tour of local governments to try to create the perception that going after Asheville’s water is totally off the table. This meeting last night was the first time anyone on one of these bodies has challenged him on it, and he had to admit that it was still very much on the table. That’s newsworthy, given his years of working on the previous attempt to seize Asheville’s water, and his repeated statements within the last year that he was preparing to try again.

        But what do I know, I’ve only been following this issue in granular detail for 6+ years. Thanks for the offer to run my strongly worded LTE rather than report this as news.

        • Able Allen

          We did report as news what is reportable as news. If you start stringing together patterns, it may be true, but it’s analysis, not reporting.
          P.S. We do acknowledge that you have been following the water wars as closely as anyone. That’s why we’d love to hear your analysis.

          • Jake

            Actually, Barry has been following the issue not “as closely,” but CLOSER than anyone, from the beginning. Barry Summers is THE subject-matter expert on this. Chuck McGrady, on the other hand, has consistently demonstrated unwavering commitment to his agenda of bailing out Henderson County with the assets of other jurisdictions. I agree with Mr. Summers: y’all buried the lead. If it’s any consolation, you were not alone.

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