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Progress made on Tunis sewer project

WINTON – The process has been agonizingly slow, but it appears that progress is being made to alleviate environmental concerns in the Tunis community.

Just recently, the Hertford County Board of Commissioners approved a legal services agreement necessary to organize and incorporate the Tunis Sewer District (TSD). That legal paperwork gives the TSD the authority, upon approval of the voters of that District, to issue general obligation and revenue bonds for the purpose of providing sewer services to the community. It also authorizes the TSD to purchase or finance the purchase of real or personal property.

Additionally, the commissioners have approved an engineering services agreement between the County of Hertford and the Wooten Company. In turn, the Wooten Company will prepare and submit a preliminary engineering report and environmental assessment for submission to USDA Rural Development, an entity from where the county will seek funds for a new sewage collection system for Tunis.

In another matter, the commissioners have approved a MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) between Hertford County and the Town of Winton for a centralized sanitary sewer system that will serve the Tunis community.

“There are septic issues all over our county, but there are very serious environmental concerns in Tunis, concerns that have put us on a fast track for this particular sanitary sewer project,” Hertford County Manager Loria Williams said.

Williams added that the State of North Carolina has issued notices of violation against Tunis residents, especially those who were found to be “straight piping” untreated sewage. That environmental concern was discovered in the spring of 2008 where a few Tunis residents did not have a septic system on their property and were straight piping it into some inappropriate container and hauling it offsite.

Meanwhile, environmental health personnel also learned in 2008 there are existing septic systems which are too close to the water itself, meaning they do not meet setback requirements for sewer systems.

Compounding the issue is the fact that Tunis is located on the shore of the Chowan River, a nutrient-sensitive waterway.

While Hertford County officials devised a plan to alleviate these environmental concerns, Tunis residents were granted “pump-and-haul” permits by the state. That means they are placing certain types of holding containers into the ground, and then certified pumping technicians go in and remove the waste.

That solution was deemed as temporary until the county can come up with enough funds to install a sewer system for the entire community.

Now, a plan is in place.

Williams said Hertford County is seeking $1,557,590 from USDA Rural Development. Combined with an earlier $500,000 grant from the North Carolina Rural Center, one earmarked for the Tunis sewer project, the county hopes to land the $2,057,590 needed to complete the work.

“Because this is stimulus funding administered through USDA, we are eligible to qualify for 75 percent of the grant request,” Williams noted. “Had this been a typical grant request of USDA Rural Development, the normal process calls for a 20-25 percent grant and the rest taken out as a loan.”

Williams stressed that without at least a 75 percent grant, this project was not affordable.

“If we had to proceed the traditional way, this project would have been pretty much cost prohibitive,” she said. “Due to the low numbers of users in Tunis, it would have presented a financial hardship…the user fees would be astronomical. The chance of securing a 75 percent grant and taking out a 25 percent loan puts us more in the ballpark on this project.”

Williams said the grant was submitted prior to the Nov. 23 deadline.

“Now its sit and wait to find out how much we will receive,” she said, adding that the county may learn their fate by late January.

Williams said the $1.55 million sought from USDA and the $500,000 already in hand will cover all costs of the project. The scope of that work includes a gravity and low pressure collection system and a main pumping station that will send the sewage to the Winton wastewater treatment plant.

“There will be individual collection systems on each lot; those systems collect and grind the matter and pump it along the lines to the pumping station,” Williams said.

While the grant/loan will pay the upfront construction costs, the TSD will require long-term operational and maintenance costs. Those costs (user fees) will be paid for by Tunis residents.

“This will be treated just like our Northern and Southern Rural Water Districts here in Hertford County,” Williams noted. “This will be a sewer district, paid for by those using the system and not by all Hertford County citizens.”

Williams said as of right now, the amount of those user fees is unknown. In a continuing effort to establish those fees as low as possible, Williams said the county is seeking other funding sources to help offset the cost of the loan the county must seek after learning the amount of grant funding from USDA Rural Development.

“We have advised them (Tunis residents) that we will conduct a community forum about this project sometimes during the next 45 days,” Williams concluded.