By Leslee Kulba – It didnt seem like a big issue. Henderson County’s Cane Creek Water and Sewer District wanted to merge with the Metropolitan Sewerage District (MSD). Cane Creek already sends the sewage it collects to the MSD’s Woodfin treatment plant. By letting the MSD take over operations, the average customer could save $8 on his monthly $38 bill. Leaving Cane Creek to build its own treatment plant would cost ratepayers considerably more.
Consideration of the merger goes at least back to 2012. Then, Representative Chuck McGrady (R-Hendersonville) suggested throwing the Cane Creek acquisition into a bill he and Representative Tim Moffitt (R-Buncombe) were crafting to create a regional water and sewage authority to be run by the MSD. At the time, the City of Asheville had already allowed the former regional board, described by bond raters as ungainly and dysfunctional, to dissolve; and the city was well on its way to investing in long-overdue repairs and refurbishment.
Asheville and Buncombe County first merged their water districts in 1981, and Henderson County joined them to create the regional authority in 1995. For the life of the authority, the North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA) would enact laws putting unique restrictions on Ashevilles ability to collect and use water revenues. When the city, by default, gained unilateral control of the system in 2005, the NCGA continued to legislate away its control, and the city continued to sue. When, in 2016, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled the McGrady-Moffitt merger law unconstitutional, it seemed the matter was settled.
Then, McGrady visited the Buncombe County Commissioners meeting Feb. 20. He was scheduled to discuss the Legislative Research Commissions Committee to Study Rates and Transfers/Public Enterprises, which he chairs. He said there was no reason to be alarmed; anything coming out of the study committee would at most only indirectly impact Buncombe County and Asheville.
The initiative at-hand began as House Bill 718. It would have prohibited county- and municipality-operated enterprises from charging differential rates and required enterprise revenues to be reinvested and not used as a slush fund, much like the Sullivan acts had uniquely required of Asheville. The bill was then relegated to committee for the upcoming short session, during which no new bills of significance may be introduced.
McGrady said elsewhere in the state, there are a lot of water systems owned by local governments. They were once sustained by mills, which have since shuttered. McGrady estimated 30-60% of municipalities and counties are functionally bankrupt because of their water and/or sewer systems. To become fiscally viable, several water systems have extended lines to surrounding areas and charged differential rates, a move McGrady said the state treasurer judged financially irresponsible. Other systems have failed, requiring the state to bail them out at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. To end this, the Department of Environmental Quality and the state treasurer wanted the study committee to explore sticks and carrots to get failing water and sewer systems to merge into regional authorities.
Another problem regional authorities could address was representation. McGrady said private water systems are regulated by the North Carolina Utilities Commission, and public water systems are governed by elected officials. The problem is, the assumption that customers are constituents who can vote-out bad leadership fails. For example, 40% of Ashevilles water customers live outside the city limits, and 70% of Hendersonvilles do.
McGrady said he had not intended to come before the commissioners until the MSD voted 10-1 in December against acquiring the Cane Creek system. Commissioner Ellen Frost clarified, It was more a question of disproportionality than not liking Henderson County. The City of Asheville has three members on the MSD board and so does Buncombe County. Woodfin has two; and Montreat, Biltmore Forest, Weaverville, and Black Mountain each have one. The rejected proposal called for Henderson County to have three representatives on a board of fifteen when Cane Creek would add only 3,700 to the systems over 50,000 customers.
McGrady said after the courts struck down his and Moffitts merger bill, he tried to negotiate an agreement with Henderson County and Asheville. He had introduced a bill, and representatives of the city complained about losing a seat if Henderson County were to join. He listened and thought he fixed the bill with support from the local delegations, but that was apparently not the case.
McGrady said Henderson County had to have three representatives because that was what the statewide bill was going to require. He also said the number had to be high because the handling of the former water agreement had left Henderson County distrustful of Asheville. Thirdly, had Henderson County joined the system from the start, it would probably have been given three seats, but if the city wanted per-capita representation, Asheville would probably have 43 seats.
I hear you loud and clear, he said. I just wish I had heard it back when I could fix it, as opposed to having what happened here based on communications Id had with various public officials. McGrady repeated his wishes that a memorandum of understanding will be signed without the state having to legislate an agreement. He asked the commissioners to stay attentive and provide input as advisable. He would be speaking to other local governments, including Asheville, about the issue.
The presentation would scarcely have raised an eyebrow had the entire legislative delegation from Buncombe County not been in the audience. Senator Terry Van Duyn, the only representative to stay for the entire meeting, explained their attendance was intended as a show of force for McGrady. She said she had served long enough in the legislature to see how things work. A bill being innocuously studied can suddenly emerge from committee and be voted on the same day.
During public comment, Beth Jezek quoted from the local daily comments from McGrady on the 2016 Supreme Court ruling, McGrady, meanwhile, said the court decision may not be the final word and there may be other ways to loosen the citys control. As Ive said in the past, theres more than one way to skin a cat.
In other matters
Van Duyn said she had stayed until the end of the meeting to alert the commissioners to other legislative action. Following a presentation on the successes of the countys Justice Resource Center (JRC), she said an attempt is underway to split up Buncombe Countys 28th Judicial District. She said if redistricting was to achieve equity, the proposal to divide Buncombe County into two or three districts made no sense. The state would be retaining four similar, larger districts, some of which had even more district judges.
She therefore assumed the intention was partisan. The districts being divided, she said, are, very frequently those represented by senate democrats. Van Duyn suggested it might not be so much a matter of us vs. them as opposition to progressive measures the courts have taken in Buncombe County. Supporting the notion, she told how the legislature has made it more difficult for other judicial districts to reduce fines for indigent defendants and attempted to standardize diversionary procedures for getting persons with drug charges into treatment.
In the presentation referenced, the countys Director of Strategic Partnerships Rachael Nygaard told how the countys jail population had been growing. 7,500 people were imprisoned in 2016, an increase of 7% from the year before. The number of substance abusers who had to undergo detox protocols increased 30% over the same period. 70% of persons incarcerated were considered low-level offenders.
Then, a year ago, the commissioners took steps to avoid building another jail. JRC Coordinator Tiffany Iheanacho told of personnel, organizational structure, and programs added. These included establishing diversionary treatment courts for substance abusers and veterans, training sheriffs deputies for crisis intervention, tailoring case management for certain situations, and investing in better technology for expediting the processing and release of low-risk offenders.
Iheanacho said since going live last October, the JRC had connected 376 people with services designed to put them on a path to leading a normal life. Rather than making the mistake of discharging prisoners to the curb with no money, no job, no home, and one outfit; the JRC makes sure people have basic creature comforts, which may mean connecting them with public benefits. It further helps with education and career development, and it even expunged the records of nine people. As a result, the prisons pretrial population was down 8-9% in 2017. Unfortunately, the facility has had to administer 1,400 detox protocols to inmates, a year-over-year increase of 60%.
Chief Public Defender LeAnn Melton was one among many who applauded the county for trying to help people in need by getting to the root of their problems, instead of holding them back with punishment. She listed major causes for people becoming justice-involved as poverty, trauma, mental illness, substance abuse, and structural inequity. She noted on a national scale, the United States is home to 5% of the worlds population and 25% of its prisoners.
Frost said she was truly humbled by the good news. She recalled how last year some people had wanted to spend $48 million on a new jail. She also recalled the shock and horror of learning the jail was housing people who did no wrong, as well as some nonviolent offenders, only because they didnt have the resources to post bail or the mental capacity to learn how to navigate the criminal justice system. She praised staff for their benevolent, data-driven solutions.
Commissioner Joe Belcher described the countys work as preventing stress from becoming toxic, saving resources, and doing the right thing.