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Helen hopes stimulus cash helps old sewer system
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Helen officials are awaiting word on whether they’ll get federal stimulus money to upgrade the town’s aging sewer system.

"We’re on the priority list for funding," said Helen City Manager Jerry Elkins.

The federal money is being funneled through the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority, a state agency that helps cities finance their water and sewer projects.

Normally, GEFA funding comes in the form of loans that eventually have to be paid back in full. But the stimulus money would come as a grant.

Elkins said the total cost of the Helen project will be about $1.28 million. If it qualifies for the subsidy, 70 percent of the cost would be paid for by the federal government, leaving Helen responsible only for repaying a $386,400 GEFA loan and covering a few other minor expenses.

"Without the stimulus, 100 percent of the money would have to come from a loan, and in order to pay it all back, we’d have to increase our water and sewer rates," said Elkins.

Helen’s sewer system is about 50 years old. Elkins said there is no automatic filter at the treatment facility to separate solids and debris from incoming wastewater.

"You have to get out there with a rake and manually get the stuff out, and that’s not a fun job," he said.

The city also needs to seal up leaky manholes.

"When we have a heavy rain event, water infiltrates the manholes and gets into the system, and then we have to pay to treat that extra water," Elkins said.

Helen officials hope to find out by early May whether they’ve been chosen for the subsidy. "We’re 99.9 percent sure it’s going to happen," Elkins said.

Helen also is applying for what the stimulus bill calls a "green" project. Elkins said the city wants $144,000 to put additional pumps and diffusers in the wastewater treatment plant, which would cut down on energy consumption.

Besides improving the sewer system, Helen is about to complete an infrastructure project that’s been in the works for a long time. The city has been trying to build a pedestrian bridge over the Chattahoochee River, to parallel the highway bridge near Paul’s Steakhouse.

Currently, the sidewalk stops at the bridge, forcing people to walk along the side of the road, close to passing cars.

But on April 21, the city expects to take delivery of an 8-foot-wide steel bridge. Elkins said it will look similar to the pedestrian overpass at Piedmont College in Demorest.

"It was constructed in Alabama and will be brought in two pieces, which will be welded together," he said.

The total cost of the project is about $350,000, with $125,000 coming from the Georgia Department of Transportation’s State Aid Grant Program and the rest paid for through Helen’s SPLOST fund.

Elkins said Main Street will be closed to traffic starting at about 7 a.m. April 21.

"We’ll be detouring people to side streets for however long it takes to get the bridge installed," he said.