Divorce for a three-parent agency?

When Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene asked the city to withdraw from the agency that protects regional air quality in Buncombe and Haywood counties, “It came as a surprise,” Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick told Mountain Xpress. “I’m very reluctant to give up appointment power for a board that essentially gives permits to pollute.”

On May 5, Greene asked Asheville City Council to approve Asheville’s withdrawal from the inter-local agreement that established the Western North Carolina Regional Air Pollution Control Agency (APCA).

City Council members refused, directing Greene to discuss the reasons for the proposed change with the city’s subcommittee on boards and commissions.

Greene told Xpress that the idea for the change originated at least five months ago, during discussions she had with Air Pollution Control Director Jim Cody.

The reason for Cody’s involvement is unclear. When asked whether an APCA board member had directed him to discuss the idea with Greene, he responded, “I don’t want to discuss this.”

Apparently, the proposal was never discussed in the following months with anyone from City Council or with Arlis Queen, one of Asheville’s two appointees to the air-agency board. Queen said he first heard of the idea through a friend after Greene approached Council.

Queen has been critical of the agency’s administration and argued that the board has inadequate control over the agency’s budget. If the city were to withdraw, he and the city’s other appointee would lose their seats on the board.

The APCA issues all air-emissions permits in Buncombe and Haywood counties. It also is responsible for monitoring emissions and levying fines against companies that violate emission standards. The agency is governed by a seven-member board made up of three appointees from Buncombe County, two from Haywood County, and two from Asheville.

The idea of dropping the city from the agency was discussed briefly on April 30, during a meeting attended by a number of people — none of whom represented Asheville. Greene says she attended the meeting with Cody, Buncombe County Personnel Director Rob Thornberry, and APCA board members Don Randolph and Chair Tom Rhodarmer — both of whom represent Haywood County. According to Greene, the meeting was held mainly to discuss an increase in APCA employee salaries, but she also informed Rhodarmer, Randolph and Cody that she would ask City Council to pull out of the agreement.

When Greene approached Council, however, its members appeared to have no prior knowledge of the request. “I’m sorry. I don’t get it,” Vice Mayor Ed Hay responded to Greene’s request.

Asheville Fire Chief John Rukavina prepared a report for Council members stating “there will be no substantial difference” in APCA rules and enforcement if the city withdraws from the inter-local agreement. In the report, he recommends to the city manager that “Asheville accept Buncombe County’s offer to assume management of air pollution control services in Asheville.”

Greene pursued the change without a formal request or decision from the Buncombe County Commissioners. Board Chair Tom Sobol says commissioners chatted informally about the idea but took no action.

Commissioner David Young says he was aware that Greene was “trying to do some reorganization” of the APCA, but that he was not certain what it involved.

Greene says it’s typical for her to “explore options” before she goes to the commissioners with a suggestion. “You really don’t want to trouble anyone with it until you have something to recommend,” she says.

A city withdrawal would make it easier for the neighboring counties to cooperate, Greene argues, saying, “It’s easier for like governments to work together.”

Actually, it’s not just the counties that would be involved, anyway: Air protection in all the counties surrounding Buncombe and Haywood is the responsibility of the state, so regional cooperation also would involve North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Haywood, Buncombe and Asheville formed their own air authority years ago, in accordance with a state law allowing the local and regional authorities. Forsyth and Mecklenburg counties also formed a local authority. Air-quality regulation in the rest of North Carolina’s counties — 96 out of 100 — is solely under DENR’s jurisdiction.

Sitnick questions how the city’s withdrawal from the regional agency would help Buncombe negotiate agreements with another county. “I’m not sure I understand the line of reasoning,” says Sitnick. “I feel that it’s important for the Asheville citizens to be represented.” The city also has inter-governmental water and sewer agreements, she points out.

Queen allows that “it’s a good idea to approach other counties about working together,” but adds, “I don’t see why you would have to drop the city.”

Greene told Asheville City Council members that even if the city pulls out of the organization, there would be no changes in the agency’s “enforcement or administration.”

When Hay said he failed to see the value of withdrawing, Greene conceded that the county would be willing to require one of its three representatives to be an Asheville resident. She later told Xpress that the county commissioners would be willing to appoint one applicant of the city’s choosing.

Greene said she doesn’t yet know whether other counties would be interested in cooperative agreements with the APCA. When asked for likely candidates, she names Henderson and Madison counties.

The APCA could be serving a “broader base” of people in this region, Greene argues. However, she claims that other counties are hesitant to sign agreements with both Buncombe County and Asheville because they’re both so large. The county is “intimidating to do business with,” and Asheville’s withdrawal from regional air-pollution control would “reduce the intimidation factor,” she says.

Sitnick agrees that Asheville and Buncombe are large, but she emphasizes that they are the hubs of western North Carolina.

The city’s exit from the air agency would “probably” help things run smoother, Cody says. He compares the agency to “a kid with three parents,” and he says that if the city withdraws, “that would make two parents.” He notes that no other municipality in Haywood or Buncombe has a seat on the board.

Greene stresses that she is happy with the way the APCA has been conducting its business. “To the best of my knowledge, things have been taken care of very, very well,” she says.

Because the city “didn’t seem particularly interested” in withdrawing from regional air-pollution control, Greene says she will look for another way to involve other counties in APCA’s air-quality efforts. She says she’ll probably talk to other counties about working together to protect air quality — but probably not before this fall because there’s no hurry.

“Nothing’s wrong to make it a pressing issue,” Greene says.

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