Sylva commissioners butt heads over TWSA appointment

A routine board appointment turned contentious last week when Sylva Commissioner Harold Hensley announced that he’d like to see someone else appointed to Commissioner David Nestler’s expiring term on the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Association Board.

During the Dec. 14 town meeting, Hensley nominated Dan Shaeffer — the town’s director of public works — to serve the next three-year term, saying that with multiple infrastructure projects on TWSA’s horizon he’d “like to see somebody down there who knows this infrastructure in the town of Sylva, and Dan knows the town of Sylva well.”

However, some saw the nomination as an effort to get Nestler, who serves on the TWSA board alongside Hensley, off the board. The two often disagree on issues facing TWSA, the most notable of which is impact fees.

An impact fee is a charge that TWSA levies on new users wishing to tie onto the system. The fees aim to offset the cost of any additional infrastructure needed to handle new allocations, but they can be quite high depending on the individual situation.

Nestler has criticized the fees as impeding economic development by creating a barrier for entrepreneurs interested in opening a water-intensive business, like a restaurant, and he also believes that the fee structure unfairly penalizes certain types of residences. Examples of impact fee charges presented to Sylva commissioners this spring included a 54-bedroom residential development that would incur $38,400 in water and sewer impact fees, and a 120-seat restaurant with retail space that would incur $44,900 in impact fees. However, users now have an option to rent allocation with a monthly payment rather than writing an upfront check, a 2015 policy that Nestler helped draft.

Hensley, meanwhile, believes eliminating impact fees would be unfair to users who have already paid them, as a substantial rate hike would be necessary to offset the revenue that impact fees currently bring in.

“If it weren’t for impact fees, if you’re on sewer and water — I don’t care if you don’t make $80 a month in Social Security, you will see an increase in your water bill. No ifs, ands or buts about it,” Hensley said during the meeting.

“Yes, I advocate for impact fee removal and Harold (Hensley) is right — impact fees generate a lot of revenue,” Nestler responded. “I think there are a lot of alternative solutions to making up that revenue, and I think that revenue could come down some. We did make a surplus of over $600,000 last year, and I do think that’s excessive. This is a low-income county. It’s a government entity. It’s a break-even entity.”

The issue of the TWSA appointment came up in town hall that night long before the board even got to that item on the agenda, with two members of the public coming to speak in favor of Nestler’s continued service on the board.

“David (Nestler) won’t tell you this, but people come up to him on a regular basis and tell him how much they believe in what he is doing to try to change the system of fees,” said Sylva resident Suzanne Saucier, who is also Nestler’s wife.

She continued to explain the various points of TWSA policy in which she believes Nestler to be on the right side and Hensley on the wrong side.

“Any nomination he (Hensley) might make, I can only assume this nominee would feel the same way that Mr. Hensley does,” Saucier said. “I do not believe that any nomination he would make would be good for the town of Sylva and its residents.”

Sylva resident Roy Davis, who is also Nestler’s father-in-law, spoke in favor of his nomination as well.

“When I hear some board members say anybody can afford it (impact fees), I want to see board members that have a different opinion and a different view and can present some different thoughts and ideas as to how best to benefit all the residents of this area, not just those with businesses and those who can afford to pay it up front,” Davis said.

When it was time for board members to discuss the appointment, Hensley was quick to say that Davis’ and Sauciers’ comments had included “a lot of mischaracter statements” and explained that impact fees are the reason that rates are able to stay as low as they are. He also took issue with criticism of TWSA’s surplus last year, saying by way of analogy that “it would tickle me to death” if Sylva’s town manager were able to tell the board that the town had ended up with an extra $500,000 at the end of the year.

“I think that deserves applause instead of a knock,” he said.

Hensley acknowledged that he and Nestler often disagree, but said that’s not why he was entering a different nomination.

Nestler, meanwhile, pointed out various areas of policy that he sees as hampering economic development and harming lower-income people, saying that he’s worked as hard as he can while on the board to benefit Sylva’s residents, sometimes losing sleep over decisions he feels were bad for the community. He admitted that he often disagrees with other board members but said he sees that as a healthy thing.

“I care a lot about this board and I fight really hard for it, and I disagree with Harold (Hensley) on that board, and I think it’s really petty you don’t want to reappoint me because of that,” he said.

In the end, Harold cast the only vote in favor of appointing Shaeffer to the board instead of Nestler. Mayor Lynda Sossamon then called for another nomination.

“I nominated David the last time. I think he’s really trying hard to do the right thing,” said Commissioner Barbara Hamilton.  “We need more young people involved.”

“Yeah, get rid of us old folks,” Hensley interjected.

“I didn’t say a word about that, Harold,” Hamilton said. “I’m old too, but I’m a little more broad-minded. I think he’s doing a good job, and I nominate David.”

That motion passed unanimously, with Hensley casting a yes vote alongside his four fellow commissioners. Nestler will now begin a new three-year term on the board. TWSA’s next meeting is 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 9, at the TWSA building on 1246 West Main Street in Sylva.

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