The potential merger of the Asheville water system with the Metropolitan Sewerage District of Buncombe County drew a range of visitors to MSD’s River Road office site Wednesday afternoon for its July board meeting. Some two dozen audience seats were filled with consultants, staff, members of the public, and one county legislator as discussion of the water system took center stage.
The agenda for the day included an update on legislation that is currently awaiting the governor’s approval or disapproval, and picking a consultant to handle MSD’s study of the financial impacts of incorporating the Asheville water system.
The study will evaluate cost issues, capital improvements, existing debt service and other financial liabilities. And, as recommended by the board’s consultant selection committee, Malcolm Pirnie/Arcadis received the nod to perform the detailed study for a contract price not to exceed $197,500. The first phase examines just the legislatively recommended merger of the city water system with MSD; phase two evaluates the potential merger of the Weaverville, Biltmore Forest and Montreat systems with the agency. Those towns were the only municipalities in Buncombe County that opted to be included in the study; they are not officially part of the merger being propelled by the legislature.
In the public comment period preceding the board’s business discussion, several people spoke out regarding the legislature’s preemption of local control in the merger decision. Barry Summers, who lives in Woodfin, urged the board to take a public position as to whether they actually want to receive the water system and incorporate it into their responsibilities. He noted that the Asheville City Council had passed a resolution opposing the merger. “Just go on record that this is a bad political move,” Summers said of the legislature’s plan for consolidation.
Buncombe County Rep. Susan Fisher, a Democrat, also spoke to the issue of the legislature’s initiative in the potential merger. “I have been sort of struggling with the idea that this has been something thrust upon the city of Asheville without a lot of input from citizens,” she said. “So I’m hoping this study is going to include some of that.”
Commissioner Bill Stanley, who represents the Buncombe County on the MSD board, responded that the potential merger was a process forced on both the city and MSD. “What [came] from our wonderful legislature,” he commented, “is: You’ll get it done or we’re going to do it for you.”
“We feel like we can do it better,” he said.
Stanley referred to the legislative study committee chaired by Buncombe County Rep. Tim Moffitt, a Republican. That committee recommended (see report here) that the 2013 session of the General Assembly consolidate the two systems (city and MSD), unless the interested governments could craft their own solution for consolidation. “Action would not be taken,” according to the report, “if the parties are engaged in good-faith negotiations on this matter.”
That statement has since led to action from both the city and MSD, including advance staff analysis in preparation for the impact study that, according to Arcadis’ project manager David Cain, “probably saved you on the order of $100,000 or so and allows us to hit the ground running.”
In the discussion of the contract award, Aceto asked the Arcadis representatives about the potential role for citizen comment during the evaluation process. Arcadis Vice President Catherine Traynor noted that one possibility would be during the draft presentations to the board.
In response to a question by Asheville City Council member Chris Pelly, a member of the MSD board, Traynor stated that financial compensation to the city “is not part of this scope,” but that the impact study would set up the model to study that issue. In other situations, she said, the compensation has ranged from none to cash or debt settlement up front or annually.
The selection of Malcolm Pirnie/Arcadis was made by unanimous vote of the board. A draft report for the city evaluation phase is due by October 30; the draft for phase two is due by December 21.
In other business, the MSD elected officers for the coming year: Steve Aceto, who represents the town of Montreat, was re-elected chair; Stanley was re-elected vice chair, and Jackie Bryson, who represents the Woodfin Water & Sewer District, was re-elected secretary/treasurer.
The board also heard the operations report of Tom Hartye, general manager, and board attorney Billy Clarke provided an interpretation of the legislation currently before Gov. Bev Perdue that sets the ground work for the action proposed by Moffitt’s committee. The bill (HB 1009) would guarantee the city of Asheville three representatives instead of one, in the event that any Henderson County entity should become a member of MSD. That legislation also gives MSD the legal power to operate a water district — tied to the legislative study’s recommendation. (For additional information on this bill, see this Xpress article, July 12, 2012.)
Aceto, in closing the meeting, stressed that HB 1009 “fixed a statute that was written 50 years ago,” and “creates options that the community can avail itself of. I hope this doesn’t get lost in the current political climate,” he concluded, calling it a “good policy move at a bad political time.”
by Nelda Holder, contributing editor