Know your sewers

True or false: The Metropolitan Sewerage District is a branch of Buncombe County government.

Answer: False.

If you guessed right, you’re doing well: In a recent survey, 36 percent of Buncombe County residents had the mistaken impression that their sewage is treated by a county agency; another 26 percent figured the MSD is connected to the Regional Water Authority.

Only one person in 10 knew that the Sewerage District is an independent agency.

Perhaps more important, only 31 percent of residents and 23 percent of businesses queried knew that Buncombe County’s sewer rates are unusually high. Furthermore, only 11 percent of the residents and 3 percent of the businesses knew that the last sewer-rate increase came two years ago.

About half of those surveyed attributed the rate increase to the cost of repairing the system — which is a good thing, as far as MSD board members and staff are concerned. That’s because the agency is likely to raise those rates again, mostly due to the condition of the 70-year-old sewer lines inherited from the city of Asheville.

In preparation for its upcoming public-relations tabloid, the MSD board paid Market Insight of Greenville, S.C., $11,000 to conduct the phone survey. In its final report, the company concluded that — surprise — the agency should create a “marketing or communication plan to increase awareness and knowledge of MSD.”

The company advised the district to justify future rate increases with “strong facts and figures,” and to use the current “strong awareness” of the aging system to help support higher fees or other changes.

The company also advised MSD to use direct-mail communication, although the board had already decided that it would be cheaper to pay the Asheville Citizen-Times $5,000 to insert 45,000 copies of the public-relations tab into a July edition of the newspaper. The board also has agreed to pay $15,500 for marketing consultant Diane Delafield of Mars Hill to produce the 16-page quarterfold.

Market Insight questioned 405 residents and 100 businesses in late 1997 and early 1998. The company reported being 95 percent sure that its statistics are accurate (within 5 percentage points on the residents and 10 percentage points on the businesses).

Other interesting facts:

• Slightly more than half the residents knew that MSD board members are appointed by city and county governments. Almost one-fourth of the people thought they were appointed by the Regional Water Authority, 5 percent thought they were appointed by the governor, and 5 percent thought they were appointed by the North Carolina Senate.

• Most residents — 77 percent — knew that their sewer bills are based on their water bills.

• Only 32 percent of residents and 31 percent of businesses said MSD treats all wastewater in Buncombe County. Theoretically — not counting septic systems and leaks — MSD treats all sewage for Asheville, Woodfin, Biltmore Forest, Black Mountain, Montreat, Weaverville and unincorporated Buncombe County.

Feline bravery

An attempted theft in the MSD administrative offices was thwarted by an unlikely burglary-prevention device: Whitewall, a 15-year-old toothless cat.

Christopher Longden, 32, of north Asheville, has been charged with burglary and attempted theft. He was being held in Buncombe County Jail in lieu of $50,000 bond.

According to documents at the Woodfin Police Department, the building’s silent alarm was triggered at 11:10 p.m. March 26, when the burglar or burglars apparently used a large rock to smash a window and gain entry.

First at the scene was Woodfin Police Cpl. Dwight Arrowood, arriving at about 11:16 p.m. Arrowood said he was surprised to find a man waiting in the office of Jim Fatland, MSD’s deputy general manager for administration. Standing just outside the office door was the cat — who appeared to be non-plussed, according to the police officer.

The alleged burglar “had that deer-in-the-headlights look,” Arrowood told the Mountain Xpress. “He was crouched on top of that desk, with his eyes all wide. I think he was actually glad to see me.”

The computer in Fatland’s office had been disconnected. MSD staff have speculated that computer theft may have been the motive.

Officers from the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department transported Longden to Mission Hospital. A doctor on duty diagnosed the man as having ailurophobia — a fear of cats — and prescribed sedatives, according to a source who asked not to be named.

In a statement on file at the Woodfin Police Department, Longden wrote, “I was leaning over unhooking the cables when, suddenly, I felt these excruciating claws digging into my back and shoulders. … I ran around screaming, but I couldn’t get it off my back. … This cat was menacing, crazy. I think [s]he has rabies.”

Longden has requested rabies-vaccine treatments. However, MSD staff maintain that Whitewall is up-to-date on all her shots.

“Apparently the guy wanted to take those computers, that’s all I can figure,” surmised MSD General Manager Bill Mull. “From what I’ve been told, he had rented a U-Haul van so he could grab as many pieces of electronic equipment as he could.”

The case still is under investigation.

“The cops really don’t want us to say too much,” Mull explained. “I can tell you that Whitewall probably will get some sort of award for her heroics.”

Whitewall, apparently named for her four white paws, has lived in the MSD building since she was a kitten. Because she had eaten soft food all her life, she developed abscesses, and all her teeth had to be pulled in 1991. Still, she manages to eat the treats MSD staffers offer her — including tiny pieces of filet mignon, and grilled chicken with teriyaki sauce.

“She loves teriyaki sauce, for some reason,” said Debbie Henderson, Whitewall’s favorite human. “And duck. She loves duck.”

Whitewall lives in the MSD Accounting Department. She prefers to spend her days in Henderson’s lap and sleeps in a box under Henderson’s desk. Occasionally, Whitewall goes outside, where she chases bugs and catches dragonflies.

Sometimes, MSD staff arriving in the morning find dead mice with no wound marks — apparently gummed or batted to death.

The MSD board already had a committee meeting scheduled for April Fool’s Day; Mull said the idea of giving the cat a plaque or other award has been added to the agenda.

Some have proposed that a special catnip patch be planted outside the building in Whitewall’s honor. Others have suggested a special presentation during Whitewall’s Sweet 16 birthday party, coming up in July.

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