09/07/07 — Eureka and Fremont working to solve sewer woes

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Eureka and Fremont working to solve sewer woes

By Nick Hiltunen
Published in News on September 7, 2007 1:59 PM

Mary Dubberly fondly recalls cheaper sewer bills for Geddy's Cafe when she opened on Main Street in Eureka about five years ago.

That was before sewer crises beset both Eureka and her nearby hometown of Fremont in northern Wayne County.

Upgrades to both systems are nearing completion, but Eureka still owes Fremont $165,000. Fremont, in turn, owes about that amount to Goldsboro.

The debts accumulated after "gushers" or huge holes in the towns' sewer lines sent, over a period of years, millions of gallons of rainwater to Goldsboro for treatment.

Officials from all three municipalities say they are not quite sure how tiny Eureka -- where median family income sits well below the national average -- is going to come up with the money.

The 2000 U.S. Census counted 244 residents in Eureka -- divided up, that means every town man, woman and child owes $676 in unpaid waste treatment debts.

To make up for their towns' deficits, Eureka and Fremont officials both have raised rates on water usage for system customers.

In Eureka, residents' sewer bills don't meet state-recommended percentages of total household income, Finance Commissioner Myrtie Sauls said.

"Your sewer bill should not be more than 2.5 percent of your total income," Mrs. Sauls said. "We are well-above that."

Still, town officials have said continued rate increases might be the only way to eventually get Eureka back in the black.

It's easy to pass through Eureka on N.C. 222 without realizing you have just visited the town, made up of 124 housing units, according to the 2000 Census.

There are just nine named streets within incorporated limits, and a total of two retail businesses -- a gasoline service station and Mrs. Dubberly's restaurant, Geddy's.

Geddy's Cafe is paying about $90 a month for water usage and wastewater treatment, its owner said.

When Geddy's first started selling country-style fare five years ago, sewer and water cost around $30 to $50 a month, Mrs. Dubberly said.

"It's probably doubled in the last couple of years," Mrs. Dubberly said. "But what else can you do? You have to bite the bullet and keep on going."

Mrs. Dubberly is also a Fremont resident, and bills at home have risen steadily too, peaking at $79.84 on a bill around Christmas 2005, Mrs. Dubberly said.

Mrs. Dubberly said business her restaurant business is solid -- and that the extra $50 she pays per month on sewer bills isn't killing her food profits.

But others in town might not be as financially secure.

The 2000 Census showed median household income for the previous year was $29,545 -- $12,449 below the U.S. average of $41,994.

Six families and 29 individuals were living below the poverty level, a rate just slightly better than U.S. averages, the Census shows.

Asked what town officials planned to do, Mrs. Sauls said she had no idea.

"Can you lend us some money?" Mrs. Sauls asked with a weary laugh.

Fixing the holes

So how did Eureka -- and to a lesser extent, Fremont -- get into this mess?

It started with gaping holes and other faults in both Fremont's and Eureka's sewer systems, which allowed rain and groundwater to get in.

That doesn't become a problem until you have to pay to treat it.

Back in 1999, Fremont Town Administrator Kerry McDuffie said, Eureka, Fremont and Goldsboro agreed to pump waste water from both Fremont and Eureka to Goldsboro for treatment.

"January of 2003, is when the sewer started getting pumped to Goldsboro," McDuffie said. "About 60 percent of what Fremont sends is rainwater."

To fix those problems -- sewer engineers call unwanted water seepage "infiltration" and "inflow" -- projects have been underway in both Fremont and Eureka.

Greenville-based Wooten Company consultant Gary Hartong has managed both -- a $1.77 million project in Fremont and a $1.24 million project in Eureka.

Both towns were fortunate to get grant money -- Eureka's was funded exclusively through grant money, mostly from the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund.

Fremont's system was also paid for largely through grants, Hartong said.

Eureka's system was the worse of the two, Hartong said, because minor repairs over the years kept some of Fremont's problems at bay, the engineer said.

In Eureka, the system was only 25 years old. Hartong said the materials used to build it may have played a role.

Truss pipe -- thin-walled PVC with concrete support architecture -- made up the system.

"It (truss pipe) was a good idea back when they came up with it, I think," Hartong said. "But over time, if it's damaged, it's hard to fix, because water can infiltrate inside that truss."

Still, however, "you would normally see a little bit of a longer life out of a system," Hartong said.

Paying up

Goldsboro City Manager Joseph Huffman said he understands the situation well -- and that Goldsboro is doing its best to work with Fremont.

Goldsboro's agreement is exclusively with Fremont, Huffman said.

"Overall, it's better than it was," Huffman said. "It's a matter of working with another local government -- they're trying to pay it off."

Fremont's August bill was $17,207, and Fremont made a payment of $40,000, Huffman said.

Kerry, Fremont's town manager, said part of that big payment was owed to $10,000 from the town of Eureka.

But commissioners in Eureka say there are no decisions yet on how the town will pay the rest of the bill.

As Eureka officials talked about installing a spray field -- an intermediate step toward reducing the number of gallons sent to Fremont -- the mayor said he was worried.

"That (spray fields) is one of the few avenues that we have to keep ourselves from basically being bankrupt," Mayor Stephen Howell said.

Jose DeJesus, the only town resident in attendance at the town's last meeting, said he wondered how long his sewer bill would climb.

Mrs. Sauls said she could almost guarantee DeJesus that rates would go up for some time.

"It didn't take us overnight to build it up," the finance commissioner said later. "So it's not going to be overnight that we can pay it."