By Stefanie Jackson – Exmore council members are nearing a tough decision on fixing the town’s outdated sewer system without causing undue financial hardship to the town or its residents.
Town Manager Robert Duer called it a “100-year decision” because it will impact residents for generations.
The council may decide to allow the Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD) to take over sewer service in Exmore.
HRSD has proposed building a pipeline connecting Nassawadox, Exmore, and Melfa to Onancock’s wastewater treatment facility, which has excess capacity.
The Onancock facility would process up to 291,000 gallons of Exmore’s wastewater per day – that’s more than Exmore would produce, Duer said.
The town would have to pay to build the necessary infrastructure, but Exmore would be permanently “out of the sewer business.”
Director of Utilities Taylor Dukes said it’s a “golden opportunity.”
It will be a “beautiful thing” when “we don’t have a failing wastewater plant, we don’t have sewage on the ground. … It’s a win-win for the town,” he said.
“For your customers, that’s where it’s going to be a tough decision,” he added.
With the Hampton Roads Sanitation District in charge of the sewer system, Exmore residents might have to pay about $100 per month for the service, Duer estimated.
“At the same time, we have a chance to bring probably another 100 to 200 homes into town with some people with some workforce housing and some people with some means to come to Exmore to make our town a nice place to live again,” he said.
Alternatively, Exmore could hire a contractor to build a brand-new sewer system, including a sewage treatment plant – but that could drive household costs up to $150 per month, Duer said.
Mayor Douglas Greer said families will be driven out of town by such high utility bills.
“You’ve got to get revenue somewhere to operate the town,” Duer said.
“If you’re paying $100 for a cell phone, I’m damn sure paying $100 for my commode to flush … it’s all priorities,” he asserted.
“I don’t know where they’re going to go,” Greer said, “but if they can’t afford $150 a month, they’re not going to be here.”
“We’re getting ready to go down that same road Cape Charles did,” he said.
Brenda Sample Bailey, an Exmore citizen, agreed. A $150 monthly sewer bill is “going to be a problem for those poor folks in Exmore. You’re going to run them all out.”
If a pricey, updated sewer system attracts new residents but drives out current residents, “you haven’t gained anything,” she said.
Duer indicated that household sewer bills of $100 per month or more is a growing trend.
But not everyone pays that much, Greer countered. Residents of nearby Pocomoke City, Md., pay only $57 per month for sewer service, he said.
Dukes pointed out that many towns that can provide sewer service to residents for less money have been in the business for a long time.
“The problem we face is, we don’t have the infrastructure. So we’ve got debt on top of cost,” he said.
“And we’ve got the old debt,” Duer added.
He blamed Exmore’s current dilemma on the town council that was in charge 20 years ago. “You’re paying for past mistakes,” Duer told the council.
Greer later spoke in defense of the former council’s decisions.
“That council was told that they had a superb system, and because they didn’t know any better, they went along with that.” The engineers who designed the system are to blame, he said.
“Who hired … the engineer?” Duer asked.
Greer was concerned that the Hampton Roads Sanitation District would “razzle dazzle” the town council and cause it to make another bad decision.
Councilman Chase Sturgis pointed out HRSD would own the system and be responsible for the cost of fixing any faults.
“This town isn’t going to prosper or grow not one inch unless you have that taken care of,” Councilman Thomas Lewis said of Exmore’s wastewater issue.
“But every other town will, because they’ll have sewer,” Duer said.
There is an alternative that may be cheaper for Exmore residents. The town has the opportunity to hire a private company to build a 2.8-mile pipeline to Nassawadox, where the wastewater would be treated.
Duer estimated that option might cost households a monthly sewer bill of $75 to $80.
But the town would still be responsible to maintain the system and answer late-night service calls.
If Exmore opts in on the Hampton Roads Sanitation District’s proposal, “we don’t ever have to worry about sewer again,” Duer said. The town would no longer be responsible for the sewer system, but there would be no decrease in town staff, he added.
Sturgis noted the town’s sewer rate is already increasing. The council recently raised the sewer rate by $5 per month, and it is considering raising the rate another $5 per month next year, he said.
Duer’s estimate of $100 per month for household sewer service was based on 900 customers each using 4,000 gallons of wastewater per month. Most households don’t generate that much wastewater, Sturgis said.
The average household uses 1,000 to 1,500 gallons of wastewater per month, he estimated. Duer guessed that number increases to 3,000 gallons per month if the family uses a dishwasher.
Another alternative for homeowners is a septic system, but those can cost up to $28,000 to purchase and install. “Figure that out by the month,” Duer said.
The Exmore town council will attend a public meeting on the Hampton Roads Sanitation District’s proposal at the town hall, Thursday, Aug. 15, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. A breakout session for Exmore residents will follow.