State Rep. Chuck McGrady is making the rounds of local governing bodies to talk about a study committee he is co-chairing to explore incentives for regionalization of sewer and water systems. He addressed the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners on Feb. 20 and is scheduled to address Asheville City Council on Feb. 27.
McGrady’s tour comes on the heels of a decision by the county’s Metropolitan Sewerage District in late December to deny a resolution that would have merged the district with the Cane Creek Water and Sewer District in Henderson County.
McGrady, a Republican whose district includes northern Henderson County, said the committee grew out of nullified legislation that transferred ownership of the Asheville water system to the Metropolitan Sewerage District — the state Supreme Court ultimately deemed it unconstitutional — but he said the committee does address a broader issue. “Many of the sewer and water systems across the state became municipal systems because they were originally part of a mill town, and the mill put in the water and the sewer,” McGrady said. “Then it became a municipal system, and unfortunately in a lot of cases that mill closed down and the water and sewer systems oftentimes frankly weren’t sustainable in their fashion in the way they worked.”
McGrady said when he suggested the study, the state treasurer’s office and Department of Environmental Quality told him he’d hit on a big issue. The treasurer’s office, he said, was concerned about finances. “Some of these systems are not sustainable,” McGrady said. “They estimate that somewhere between 30 and 60 municipalities [and counties] across the state … are functionally bankrupt because of their water and sewer systems.”
The DEQ’s concern, McGrady said, also had to do with sustainability. “Periodically [these systems] fail, and suddenly the state has to come in and put up a few hundred thousand dollars to deal with the issue at hand, but it’s just a Band-Aid. … Both of these state government departments have basically said, ‘Can we create some incentives or even some sticks to cause some of these things to merge together? We need more regional water and sewer.’”
Not everyone in attendance at the commission meeting viewed McGrady’s presentation in a positive light. “Rep. McGrady is relentless in his efforts to take control of Asheville’s water,” said Asheville resident Beth Jezek during public comment. “When he says he is trying to work with Asheville to resolve water issues, please realize there are no issues to be resolved. The courts resolved the Asheville water issues over a year ago. … His actions in the legislature are antagonistic and punitive, making it difficult to believe he has altruistic motives and is acting with integrity.”
McGrady also tried to allay concerns that the committee was put together with ulterior motives. “In the MSD processes … we had folks stand up and suggest that this committee was the way that Rep. Chuck McGrady was going to seize Asheville’s water system again,” McGrady said. “And I’m here to talk to you directly to explain that that just isn’t true. It’s just rhetoric.”
Funding school projects
At its Feb. 20 meeting, the Board of Commissioners unanimously approved issuing limited obligation bonds to pay for $60 million worth of school projects that have been approved over the past few years.
This includes about $46.7 million in major renovations to Asheville High School, Community High School and Montford North Star Academy as well as LED retrofits for schools in both the Buncombe County and Asheville City Schools systems, and roofing and HVAC replacements at Ira B. Jones Elementary School. The county will also be financing about $13.7 million in miscellaneous projects.
“I think these projects have all been vetted by both the county school board internally and then the city school board and then the School Capital Fund Commission,” said board Chair Brownie Newman, “So I think there’s been a very thorough process from staff, the school boards and this body to rank all the projects within each school system, and these were projects that rose to the top.”
The Local Government Commission, which must consider any debt financing of this magnitude, will look at the financing plan on March 6.
The county will issue the bonds through a public sale, with the term of issuance being 20 years. The county will pay off the debt using Article 39 sales tax revenue, which is one of four sources of sales tax revenue used by the county. Of the Article 39 revenue, 50 percent is designated for school capital projects.
In a separate vote, commissioners unanimously approved three extra projects totaling $813,167 for the 2019 school year. Commissioners had previously approved about $14.23 million in projects for the 2019 school year out of a capacity of about $15 million.
“The [School Capital Fund Commission] was recommending a few more projects to use up the remaining capacity for that school year,” said Dustin Clark, the county’s business intelligence analyst. “That would be the remainder of school year 2019 funding, and we would look at school year 2020 funding moving forward.”
These new projects include $431,167 for the demolition of Asheville High School’s ROTC building and wall stabilization, $132,000 for a kitchen replacement at Clyde A. Erwin High School and $250,000 for LED lighting replacements in Buncombe County schools, which county schools energy manager Alesha Reardon says makes up for a reduction in rebate funds received from Duke Energy Progress.
Reaching new heights
Commissioners heard an update on the Lee Walker Heights revitalization project, which has received a second major piece of funding in the form of federal housing tax credits from the N.C. Housing Finance Agency to help incentivize investment in the housing development. The first major piece of funding was a $4.2 million commitment each from the city of Asheville and Buncombe County.
David Nash, chief operating officer of the Asheville Housing Authority, told commissioners he anticipates the tax credits will fund approximately $12 million, or one-third, of the total project cost.
Built in 1950, Lee Walker Heights was the first public housing community in Asheville. Planners envision that the complex will be a mixed-income community once complete, adding 116 additional apartments to the complex’s current allotment of 96 deeply subsidized units.
Nash said residents will be relocated during construction: “We will be providing another apartment in our inventory that’s equal to or better than the one they are staying in now, and they will have the right to return when the project is complete.” He added that the relocation could start this summer.
Newman lauded the project. “This is much more than just an affordable housing development. … It’s going to accomplish a bunch of other great things for the neighborhood and the community,” he said.
In other business
Commissioners bumped a public hearing on a rezoning request to March 6 because the petitioner, Heath White of Zen Tubing, was dealing with a personal matter and couldn’t attend the meeting. White is asking the county to rezone a 4-acre parcel at 1648 Brevard Road from residential low-density to commercial service district.
The board filled two vacancies on the Buncombe County Board of Adjustment, selecting candidates Wendell Howard and Martin Moore. Commissioners decided to delay a vote on filling a vacancy on the Asheville Board of Adjustment until they could interview the second of two candidates.
The next meeting of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners will occur Tuesday, March 6, in room 326 at 200 College St. in downtown Asheville. For more of the latest county and city news, check out Xpress’ Buncombe Beat.