A break in the clouds

Better water on the way? Mills Gap resident Tate MacQueen praised commissioners for trying to help CTS-contamination victims get public water but said much more has to be done. photo by Max Cooper

After decades of grappling with contaminated well water, several Arden residents praised the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners for taking the first step toward providing them with public water lines.

During its June 19 meeting, the board voted 5–0 to apply for about $4 million in state water-quality loans that would be used to connect 129 homes in the Mills Gap Road area to the city of Asheville's public water system. Chemicals from the area's former CTS of Asheville site have allegedly contaminated many of the residents' wells. If the no-interest loans are awarded, the commissioners instructed the county attorney to work with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to try to get CTS to repay the money.

County Manager Wanda Greene cautioned that it might be September before they find out if they'll receive the loans. In the meantime, she noted that the county would work with the city "to be ready to go if we get it."

She also noted that the move carries some financial risk: County taxpayers could end up on the hook for the funds if CTS is able to duck paying them back. The first payment would be due in May 2014; the county would have 20 years to pay it back, according to Greene.

However, the commissioners were undeterred. "Let's get that done. That's been a long time coming and we need to get cracking," declared Vice Chairman Bill Stanley before voting for the measure.

CTS manufactured electronic components in southern Buncombe County until shutting down operations in the late 1980s. Its factory site was recently placed on the federal Superfund list of seriously contaminated properties. Testing has shown many nearby wells contain such toxic chemicals as trichloroethylene, cyanide and chromium. Under the Elkhart, Ind.-based company's current agreement with the EPA, whole-house filters have been offered to residents who live within a one-mile radius of the 9-acre core site and are still on well water. Several years ago, municipal water was supplied to a handful of homeowners who live closest to the contaminated site and whose wells and spring water have shown very high levels of toxins.

Residents have continued to be outspoken in their demands for public water hookups, and several attended the commissioners meeting to applaud their decision.

"You're saving our lives. You're saving our homes," exclaimed Lori Murphy.

Resident Tate MacQueen, who teaches at Charles D. Owen High School, added: "It really is, to use a cliché, a watershed moment for us." However, MacQueen also cautioned that he sees public water as only one step of many needed to address the issue. He noted that surface-water contamination and resulting toxic vapors also continue to be a problem, as well as negligence from company and EPA officials.

"We need accountability for the officials that failed us, as well as CTS — they've worked in concert,” he declared.

Meanwhile, Candler resident Jerry Rice called the board's move part of a "Band-Aid" approach to dealing with local hazardous waste.

He speculated that, in time, many more than 129 Mills Gap Road homes could be affected as contamination continues to spread into groundwater.

"This stuff goes a lot deeper," he maintained. "It's not an isolated incident in the CTS community. … We have a lot of other places in Buncombe County that we could name that have hazardous waste that people don't even know they're drinking. They don't have the money to test the wells."

Budget OK’d, but longevity issue lingers

After a few minor adjustments, commissioners unanimously approved the county's $337 million budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The budget holds the line on property taxes, using about $8 million in reserve funds and projected economic growth to cover a 1-percent increase in spending. The county’s property-tax rate has been set at 52.5 cents per $100 valuation since 2006, when it was cut from 53 cents. Unlike last year, when the county cut costs by eliminating 93 staff positions, this year's proposal calls for no major staff reductions.

However, the commissioners and county staff members did discuss several personnel policies before the board signed off on the proposal, including county employees' longevity bonuses, which for most employees amount to between 3 percent and 7 percent of their salaries, depending on when they were hired.

At the board's June 5 meeting, Commissioner Holly Jones indicated that she would likely propose capping those bonuses at $3,000 a year — a move that would primarily affect the county's longest serving and highest paid employees. However, after Greene and Human Resources staffers made a lengthy presentation defending the policy as needed to retain good workers, Jones and the other commissioners decided to defer any action until after a study of the issue is presented in August.

In her public comments, however, Jones continued to advocate for changing the three-tiered system, which she noted gives new hires only a fraction of the bonus longtime employees get (the maximum payment for employees hired after February 2011 is $300 no matter how long they work). She also continued to push for reducing the waiting period to receive health-insurance benefits for new county employees to 30 days. The budget calls for cutting the waiting time from 180 days to 90 starting Jan. 1 — a year before federal law will require the county to do so.

Jones said she would continue to advocate for the health-insurance policy "until they put me in the grave or kick me off this platform."

Meanwhile, Stanley praised the budget, noting that it was the 24th he's voted on and will be his last (the longtime commissioner is retiring when his term ends in December).

"This is a milestone for me," he noted. "It's been a great, great ride for me. I will always be proud."

New property for A-B Tech

In other action, the board unanimously approved buying property at 93 Victoria Road from Horizon Management Services for $2.38 million. The purchase was requested by A-B Tech and the property will be used by the community college; it will be funded by sales-tax revenue that voters narrowly approved in last fall’s referendum and that the board pledged to use for capital improvements at the school. The site is currently the home of the MAHEC Women's Health Center.

In addition, commissioners unanimously decided to extend Western North Carolina Community Health Services' lease of property at 283 Biltmore and provide 7,665 square feet of additional space. The measure will extend the lease for two years, provided that WNCCHS will see an additional 1,500 patients during each year. The county will charge $1 per year for use of the property.

— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or jfrankel@mountainx.com.

About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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