This may sound familiar: Rep. Chuck McGrady and government officials in Buncombe County are in the midst of a disagreement over legislation he’s pushing that would affect control over local issues.
The debate this time is over sewer service and who sets policies for the agency that delivers it. That’s not as exciting as who owns the Asheville water system or whether Asheville City Council should be elected by district, topics McGrady and local officials have differed over before. But the outcome would affect how much residents and businesses in northern Henderson County pay for sewer and give residents there more say over policy decisions that can have a big impact on land development in the region.
McGrady, a Henderson County Republican, on April 16 introduced a bill in the state House that would give Henderson commissioners a way to force the Metropolitan Sewerage District of Buncombe County to add Fletcher, Mills River and some unincorporated areas of northern Henderson County to the MSD service district. The bill, which would apply to a handful of sewer providers across the state, would remove the power to approve or deny a county’s request for expansion from utilities like MSD and give it to a state board instead.
The MSD board voted the next day to oppose McGrady’s bill. Members said it should be up to them, not the state Environmental Management Commission, whether to add northern Henderson County. They also said the proposed legislation would give Henderson residents more votes on the MSD board than their numbers warrant.
Under a contract with Henderson County government, MSD today treats sewage from northern Henderson at the MSD plant downstream in Woodfin. Henderson owns the collection system, and differences in maintenance and related costs mean a typical residential customer in northern Henderson pays about $8 more a month for service than similar MSD customers do, says MSD General Manager Tom Hartye.
Henderson commissioners want MSD to take over the collection system. The MSD board in December 2017 turned down commissioners’ proposal to expand the MSD district to do that and add three Henderson residents to the 12-member MSD board.
McGrady says the current arrangement amounts to “taxation without representation” and Henderson residents should have a say in the body running MSD. His bill would add two Henderson County members on the board right away, then a third later.
McGrady played an important role in passage of a law, thrown out by the state Supreme Court in 2016, that would have given ownership of the Asheville water system to MSD; he also weighed in on another law to elect most of Asheville City Council by district. He says worries stemming from the water issue were a factor in MSD’s 2017 decision to rebuff Henderson County.
MSD board members say McGrady’s proposal would give Henderson too much representation. The county accounts for 7.2% of MSD’s customers but would control 14.3% of the seats on the MSD board right away under McGrady’s bill, according to Hartye.
When a third Henderson member joins, Henderson residents would make up 20% of the board — the same as Asheville, where 53.5% of MSD accounts are located.
McGrady says the board’s membership is not proportional now and it is “crazy” to argue about the composition of a board where decisions are almost always unanimous anyway.
In addition to Asheville’s three members of the MSD board, Buncombe County commissioners appoint three, and each of the county’s other municipalities and the Woodfin Sanitary Water & Sewer District pick one. That means Biltmore Forest and Montreat get one seat apiece even though they together account for only 2.4% of MSD’s customers.
McGrady says he is willing to adjust the way a third Henderson member would be added. He says he approached Asheville and Buncombe County officials about satisfying Henderson County’s desire for consolidation and got no response.
His bill, he says, would leave a decision up to the Environmental Management Commission because “we just need to do it. Let’s not go back through a political process.”
Jerry VeHaun, chairman of the MSD board and Woodfin mayor, said at the board’s April 17 meeting that he doesn’t know whether the water battle is a factor in the sewer dispute but resistance to being dictated to by Raleigh definitely is.
“While we’re not opposed to giving [Henderson] some representation,” McGrady is asking for too much, he said. “This needs to be … worked on together. Don’t just throw it on us.”