A property owner’s sign warns those who pass by about city sewage issues in downtown Temple.
“Do not rent or purchase property in downtown Temple,” the sign says, describing the owner’s costs of $100,000 to try to resolve sewage leaks blamed on aging city infrastructure that includes clay pipes, once the industry standard.
The banner is placed on the balcony at 14 E. Central Ave. — around the corner from City Hall — and in the heart of a downtown area where planned redevelopments — including the Hawn Hotel — are either underway or expected to begin soon.
James Fertsch, owner of janitorial service Extreme Clean at the site, said he decided to hang the sign after having been given the run around from the city for too long.
Fertsch said his problem with the city is not only the sewer backing up into the building — something he estimates has happened more than 30 times in the past 11 years — but the cost of damage repairs.
“They have dug up the sewer line so many times that the water has started eroding underneath my basement and my walls,” Fertsch said. “I had a guy come out here that said I need a structural engineer at this point because I am lucky that the walls haven’t collapsed.”
City spokesman Cody Weems said the sewage backups into the building are a result of older clay sewer lines due to age and composition of the line.
In recent years, the city has been working to identify and replace its older sewer lines — with many having been damaged or with roots growing into them. Weems said downtown, like any historic area, will have problems with aging infrastructure.
“The city has demonstrated a commitment to upgrading utility infrastructure in the downtown district and throughout the entire city,” Weems said. “We believe downtown Temple is an attractive destination, made evident by the new businesses that continue to open in the district.”
The city now uses plastic pipes in replacing clay ones.
“Clay pipe is generally older so it tends to leak more,” Weems said. “Plastic is generally considered more durable, which is why it is the current city standard.”
A consultant is assessing the downtown utility infrastructure, Weems said.
“Those determinations will be made after the assessment is complete,” the spokesman said.
Replacing clay pipes with plastic ones has helped the city decrease the amount of overflows caused by excessive rainfall.
For example, 74 overflows were reported in fiscal year 2020-21, compared to 105 in fiscal year 2019-20 and 161 in fiscal year 2018-19, according to city data.
“Note that these have decreased as a result of the city’s commitment to upgrading utility infrastructure,” Weems said.
Replacing infrastructure is costly, but the city hasn’t sought a loan yet from the Texas Water Development Board or other potential funding sources to help pay to replace aging clay pipes.
However, the city is in the process of getting started on application processes with the aid of a consultant, Weems said.
Weems said the city has offered to install a grinder pump on Fertsch’s property — a device to pump out sewage uphill — as well as connect the building owner into a newer line.
While willing to fix the issue with the sewer line, the city has said Fertsch has no evidence the damage to the building was caused by them and won’t pay for repairs.
Fertsch said he knows he doesn’t have photographic evidence of the damages caused by the city, but points to his need to work instead of watching the city workers with a camera.
After putting up his sign, along with security cameras, Fertsch said the city has moved the Dumpster that was hitting his building so much it made a dent, and its workers have been more careful.
Fertsch said all the damage has not only affected his business, which operates from the building, but his home located in the basement. He said that almost every time the sewer backs up he has needed to replace his flooring, baseboards and the bottom 2 feet of sheetrock.
This is not only for the basement, which experiences most of the backups, but the upper floors where sewage comes up through the toilet and shower drains.
“It is horrible to clean up,” Fertsch said. “Even though I own a commercial cleaning company, it is not like I want to come home and clean up everyone else’s poop and stuff. It just gets old.”
City officials said two other building owners in downtown have had similar problems to Fertsch but have accepted help.
For one, the city has tied in the building to one of the newer lines, made of plastic instead of clay so it will last longer. The other building, due to being at a lower elevation, needed a grinder pump before it could be connected to a new line.
“The city has offered to install a grinder pump assembly and tie into the newer line for this property owner, but to date, he has not agreed to the city performing the work on his property,” Weems said.
Taking a stand
While he is still willing to compromise with the city, Fertsch said he already is looking at hiring a lawyer to settle the issue.
Fertsch said he had talked to at least three lawyers in Temple for their help but each had declined to work with him since they also do work with the city government and don’t want to ruin that relationship.
This concern over what the city will do also is why Fertsch said he thinks his business has taken a hit since putting up the sign.
“I have probably lost customers because of it, just the sign,” Fertsch said. “Because they don’t want to affiliate with me if I am having to sit here and go against the city.”
Fertsch said he has not sold his building and moved to somewhere with less issues because he expects the value to soon increase after completion of the Hawn Hotel and other downtown improvements.
After buying the building in 2010 for about $70,000, he said it is now worth about $500,000 and could go up to $800,000 after the nearby improvements.