09/04/13 — Fremont to board: North end of county needs look

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Fremont to board: North end of county needs look

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on September 4, 2013 1:46 PM

Kicking off the Wayne County Board of Commissioners' tour through the boards of each of the county's seven municipalities, Chairman Steve Keen ended Tuesday night's meeting with the same theme he opened it with -- "Where does Fremont fit?"

"We want to understand what is going on in Fremont," Keen said. "Your citizens are paying county taxes. The county has to be at the table."

And so to that end, the commissioners welcomed the Fremont Board of Aldermen to the table at Lane Tree for dinner and a meeting to discuss issues important to them.

"We're suffering, No. 1, with a revenue issue. It costs a tremendous amount of money to operate the town, and our source of revenue is dwindling every year," Mayor Darron Flowers said, identifying electric, sewer and police costs as the primary strains on the budget.

He also pointed to a lack of jobs and the declining number of taxpaying landowners within town limits as a problem.

Furthermore, he pointed to the county's tipping fee increase this year -- approved after most municipalities had passed their budgets -- as an example of a cost change that could have caused a serious problem.

"If the county is going to be making a fee or tax change that is going to impact the municipalities, we need to know about it during our budgeting process," Flowers said.

But in terms of where Fremont fits, that was an easy question to answer.

"We need to look at northern Wayne County as a whole," Flowers said. "Look at Fremont, Pikeville, Eureka. Individually, we can't compete with anything. But together we can."

The county's residential growth, he continued, is occurring largely in northern Wayne, but not within the limits of any one municipality. What the northern end needs, he said, is business and industrial growth -- not the continued loss of factories like the Acme United plant that is scheduled to close soon.

The problem, though, is not many people live in Fremont anymore. As jobs and businesses -- the town at one time had three car dealerships, seven service stations, seven grocery stores, a movie theater and more -- have moved away so have the people.

Town Manager Kerry McDuffie explained that not only has the town's population been in a steady decline since the 1980s, it's also gotten older.

And, he said, such an older population is often impacted harder by the high sewer and electric rates that plague Fremont and dampen interest by business and industry.

In terms of sewer, Flowers said, $1.5 million would likely take care of the problem -- infiltration into the sewer lines causing the town to pay Goldsboro to treat more of its sewage than is actually being sold to residents. In fact, McDuffie said, the problem is so bad, unless the town raises its already higher-than-average sewer rates, those costs could zero out all of the town's funds within two years.

In terms of electricity, Fremont officials said they are trying to keep their rates competitive with other towns in the ElectriCities network.

And while they acknowledged the county couldn't necessarily help them address either of those problems directly, Fremont officials did discuss one related issue with the commissioners -- the need for natural gas in the northern end of the county.

Apparently, they explained, the natural gas lines stop around Belfast. But, the aldermen said, if those could be run further out, not only would that take pressure off residential utility bills, but it also would make the area more attractive to business and industry.

Unfortunately, County Manager Lee Smith noted, "it's the chicken or the egg" problem.

Natural gas lines, as of several years ago, he said, cost about $1 million per mile to run, and companies only run them where they have industrial customers. The problem, he said, is finding an industrial company large enough to motivate the natural gas companies without those lines already existing.

Still, it was one area the two boards agreed to look at together.

"Natural gas could solve a lot of issues," Commissioner Joe Daughtery said.

Other issues discussed involved the desire for county services in northern Wayne County, including possible satellite offices for the county departments of social services and health.

The problem, explained the aldermen, is that with all of those services clustered in Goldsboro, and as others such as the ABC store, the driver's license office and the magistrate's office all leaving town over the years, people have fewer and fewer reasons to come into Fremont.

"Sometimes there is too much centralization. There are so many areas I feel northern Wayne has been left out of," Flowers said, offering the county a building it could rent or buy for such offices.

Another possibility, Smith said, could be to expand the focus of the mobile dental unit that will be visiting Fremont and other parts of the county.

Commissioner Ed Cromartie then brought up another area he felt could be looked at in terms of services -- allowing the county Sheriff's Office to take over patrols for the town police force.

However, it was explained that such an possibility was examined -- and then dropped -- in 2010 and that it was only feasible if Pikeville was willing to go along with it.

Similarly, a brief discussion of combining the Fremont and Pikeville libraries was met with little interest as Flowers expressed the town's desire to keep its own facility within walking distance for most residents.

And so with few items that could be identified for concrete action Tuesday, Keen again focused on how the town fits into the larger picture for Wayne County as commissioners and staff begin to move toward an update of the comprehensive land use plan.

Fremont officials acknowledged that they don't have such a long-term plan themselves and that with their focus on improving their sewer and electric situation, one is not in the works, but they did express interest in creating a regional vision with their northern neighbors.

"We cannot look at land use planning as one municipality," Flowers said. "We need to do it with Eureka and Pikeville."

For now, they said, they would simply like the Wayne County Development Alliance to work with them to identify a small factory or other business to fill the empty industrial sites in town.

McDuffie also noted that there is a 31-acre tract between N.C. 222 and I-795 that the owner is willing to develop once the economy has improved.

"If you're traveling I-264 to I-795, there's nothing between Zebulon and Goldsboro. That would be the ideal place to put gas stations and hotels," he said.

And that, Keen said, is exactly the kind of information the county is hoping to learn at these meetings.

"If you want to develop a property, every government body has to be on the same page in making plans," he said. "You have to start somewhere. This is a collaborative process. We have four years to work together and we're just getting started."

The next meeting will be with the Mount Olive Board of Commissioners at 5:30 p.m., Monday at Ribeye's on North Center Street; followed by Eureka at 11:30 a.m., Sept. 11 at Lane Tree Golf Club; Seven Springs at 6 p.m., Sept. 12 at the Seven Springs Restaurant; Pikeville at noon, Sept. 18 at Lane Tree Golf Club; Walnut Creek at noon, Sept. 19 at Walnut Creek Country Club; and Goldsboro at 8 a.m., Sept. 30 at Goldsboro City Hall.