Although Asheville won its last confrontation with the legislature, Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer said she’s keeping a close eye on a new legislative committee on water and sewer systems led by Henderson County Rep. Chuck McGrady.
In an interview with Carolina Public Press Thursday, Manheimer said she understands the need for a statewide look at the systems, but with the recent court case to stop a legislature-mandated merger still a fresh memory, there’s a lot of concern in the community that another merger bill is coming.
“I think there is this trust issue,” she said. At the same time, she said, there is movement toward resolving some of the water issues.
Manheimer confirmed that the city and Henderson County are close to a deal on an interlocal agreement on water lines in northern Henderson County. Lawyers for both parties signed off on an agreement this month.
“I think we’ve gotten it to a good place,” she said. The agreement, she said, resolves Henderson County’s concern about a mechanism for extending services to new businesses and residential developments.
McGrady is on a speaking tour of local governments to explain the work of the new study commission he chairs that is charged with looking into water and sewer rates and fees and the use of public enterprise funds. He met last week with Buncombe County commissioners last week.
He told Henderson County commissioners at their meeting Wednesday morning that the new Committee to Study Rates and Transfers of Public Enterprises he co-chairs is taking a broad approach that goes well beyond a look at water and sewer in Asheville and western North Carolina.
He said the state’s Local Government Commission (LGC) and the Department of Environmental Quality want to see action to deal with a growing number of troubled water and sewer systems.
“From the LGC’s perspective we’re well past the point where every city needs to have its own water and sewer (systems),” McGrady said. “There needs to be regional water and sewer in many places and they would like to see the GA provide some sticks and carrots to move toward that.”
DEQ is dealing with many systems that can’t keep up with necessary repairs and upgrades, he said.
While McGrady said he does not plan to introduce legislation in the short session, he expects to continue conducting informational meetings and working toward legislation in next year’s session.
As for the local utility concerns, he told commissioners the new agreement was a good sign.
“My belief is that if Henderson County and Asheville can reach a memorandum of understanding with respect to water that their probably is no need for legislation other than needing at some point to figure out this representation issue,” he said.
Manheimer said she thinks it is possible to eventually reach agreement on the larger issue of bringing the Cane Creek system in Henderson County into the MSD, but hurdles still exist, including wariness on what could happen in the legislature.
“It’s too bad because the merger of the Cane Creek system makes a lot of sense and is a good idea,” she said. “Functionally I have no problem with it. It’s fine, but the trust and governance issue is really the problem.”
McGrady did tell commissioners that legislation could become necessary to resolve the issues around Henderson County’s move to join the MSD, which rejected the county’s latest request in late December.
“On MSD, I’m going to look at other options,” he said. “There are more ways than one way to get things done, but at least before I go down that road I am hoping to see if local governments can resolve the issues before I have to figure out if I can.”