First water, now sewer: McGrady, local officials disagree

BOARD BATTLE: The Metropolitan Sewerage District of Buncombe County’s treatment plant in Woodfin treats sewage from 55,427 customers, 3,970 of whom are in Henderson County. The MSD board and state Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, are at odds over a McGrady bill to give Henderson County residents more control over the utility. Photo by Mark Barrett

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.”

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5 thoughts on “First water, now sewer: McGrady, local officials disagree

  1. bsummers

    McGrady says the current arrangement amounts to “taxation without representation”

    Golly, Henderson County has been so victimized by MSD. Saving them from having to build their own waste treatment system all these years – how dare they!

    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

    Meaning, MSD charges Henderson County users the same amount they do everyone else, but Henderson County tacks on a local surcharge to maintain their own collection system.

    it is “crazy” to argue about the composition of a board where decisions are almost always unanimous anyway.

    Thanks, Chuck. You just made the argument for why Henderson County should be happy with only one seat.

  2. bsummers

    He says worries stemming from the water issue were a factor in MSD’s 2017 decision to rebuff Henderson County.

    You mean because you’ve vowed repeatedly to try again to seize Asheville/Buncombe’s water system, even after the NC Supreme Court ruled against your last attempt? Yeah, I guess that could cause some to “worry”.

    Also, as I understand it, the (unanimous) MSD resolution included a pointed request that they be invited to speak when the bill comes up in committee. Will Chuck allow this, or will he force this on Buncombe County without even a hint of fairness?

  3. bsummers

    In the past, Henderson County Commissioners have insisted that only three seats on Buncombe County’s MSD was wildly unfair.

    “They’ve offered us three (seats) for some time. We’ve said it would take at least four.“
    “Three votes on a 15-member board isn’t enough, he added, “because that means the others are going to vote with the city of Asheville.“

    Commissioner Mike Edney (who later became Chairman) really took the cake:

    “If I were writing the bill, I would have Henderson County with about 50 percent of the representation”
    https://www.blueridgenow.com/news/20130328/commissioners-react-to-regional-utility-authority-bill

    Three seats? Phooie! At least one Commissioner down there apparently thinks they deserve half the seats on the Board, when they only represent 7% of MSDs customers. This attitude of victimization and a need to gain control of other people’s infrastructure is why current MSD Board members don’t want anything to do with Henderson County. I don’t blame them. The original draft of Chuck’s bill said nothing about the provision in current MSD statutes that say that if Henderson County brought in to the district, Fletcher and Mills River each would get a seat, in addition to the three for the County. It was only after MSD complained, that Chuck removed that provision.

    Also, read that article for the part about Henderson County looking at building their own wastewater treatment plant. They tabled that (totally sensible) idea, around the time that Chuck McGrady started telling them he had a way to forcibly put them on MSDs Board, and they could save that $30 million.

    Well, that is sort of a sore subject in Henderson County. Some have been questioning why the County has such a huge cash reserve:
    “The taxpayer watchdog caucus can afford to be sanguine about this towering stack of debt because of the tail end of the balance sheet, which shows an eye-popping fund balance of $45 million — $35 million more than the 8 percent the state requires the county to sock away in reserves.”
    https://www.hendersonvillelightning.com/opinion/5810-lightning-editorial-borrow-and-spend-becomes-the-new-normal.html

    Huh. They are sitting on $35 million more than they need to. That’s um… right around what it would cost to build their own dang wastewater plant. Do they have that surplus because they were starting to set it aside, and then chose to go after control of Buncombe County’s infrastructure instead?

    • C-Law

      Uh, sir…..this an Arby’s!? Can I take your order?

      Gotcha Barry! ha ha!

      • bsummers

        I like it. It’s pointless, yet at the same time, nonsensical. How do you do it?

        Anyway, here’s Henderson County Commissioner Bill Lapsley speaking in front of MSD on their request to join MSD’s Board, December of 2017. He confirms that they had been seriously looking at building their own wastewater treatment plant up until 2011-2012. (That just happens to be when Chuck McGrady and Tim Moffitt started talking about a forced-regionalization bill that would give Henderson some measure of control over Buncombe County’s infrastructure.)

        At this meeting, he knows that the MSD Board is leaning away from accepting Henderson County members, and so he pulls out what he believes is an ace in the hole: taking their wastewater and going home.

        “If that was to happen, all those 4000+ customers would be disconnected from the MSD system.”
        https://www.dropbox.com/s/oqyp4vzjdabh88q/lapsleythreat.mp3?dl=0

        The MSD Board didn’t blink, and voted 10 – 1 to reject the proposed merger which would have given Henderson County 3 board seats. If in fact, HenCo went back and took another look at building out their own infrastructure, I didn’t hear about it. And Chuck didn’t get the memo either – he immediately started sabre rattling about forcing MSD to accept Henderson County members, and now here’s the bill.

        Regional cooperation shouldn’t be that hard. But if one side’s constant motivation is getting vengeance for perceived past wrongs, it will always go bad. Looks like we’re all going back to court.

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