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The tiny Village of Farnham looks very much like its neighbors on the southern end of Erie County.

But beneath the surface is a very real threat. In many ways, its 425 residents are sitting on a time bomb, one made up of 70-year-old water lines that have burst several times, creating at least one state of emergency and potentially threatening the village's existence.

The situation is so critical that representatives from all levels of government have been working together to help the village, which is ranked as the most economically disadvantaged in Western New York.

"We're hanging on by our fingernails," Farnham Mayor Terry Caber said recently. "We're holding our breath. What's the next disaster going to be?"

Caber's concern comes on the heels of a number of water line breaks, including one in September that was so severe that it led to a state of emergency. Village residents were without water for 36 hours.

"It was terrible," said Josephine Rauker, a senior citizen who has lived in the village all her life. "You couldn't take a bath; you couldn't wash the dishes. I don't know how anyone can get along without water."

The system needs to be replaced, but the village cannot afford it.

The recent water main break alone could cost about $25,000, Caber said. "And we have no idea where we're going to get the money to pay for it." It resulted from switching the water supply to the village from the local water tower to a water main.

"These lines are so old, you can't put pressure on them," Caber said.

Last summer, Caber voiced concerns about a state road improvement project on Routes 5 and 249 in Farnham that he
said threatened the decaying water lines. At that time, the lines, which are under the road, were springing so many leaks, "it was like a sprinkler".

Spokesmen for the state Department of Transportation said that the work being done was not affecting the lines and that the state was legally restrained from using road-improvement funds to replace water lines.

So Caber asked state and county officials for help. County Executive Gorski approved some emergency funding at that time, referring the village to the county's Environment and Planning Department for a loan.

"We're not looking for frills here," Caber said. "Just sustaining the basic necessities, a safe and reliable water supply."

He said timing is important, because if funding can be found before the state DOT finishes its project on Route 249, the work can be done in conjunction with that project.

Caber said Assemblyman Dick Smith, D-Hamburg, is trying to secure funding to replace the system. In a letter to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, Smith asked for help for the village, citing the seven water line breaks and the lack of fire protection for more than 24 hours during last month's state of emergency.

"I've got some money I'm trying to put in place for them," Smith said recently. "We're working on a hardship application right now."

Hardship applications are based on financial need, as well as median income. According to the 1990 federal census, more than half the village's residents are at a low or moderate income level, with the median income $23,250.

Smith also said he plans to propose legislation next year to allow the DOT to relocate utilities in hardship cases such as Farnham's.

State Sen. Dale M. Volker, R-Depew, and U.S. Rep. Jack F. Quinn, R-Hamburg, also are working with Caber. Quinn recently called on Gov. Pataki and the state Health Department to help the village.

Caber estimates replacement costs at $250,000.

With an annual budget of only $195,000, the village would find it almost impossible to come up with that amount of cash. Its water fund budget is slightly under $50,000, and its contingency spending account, which is used to replace faulty valves and the like, is only $2,500.

"It's not really meant for emergencies," Caber said. "If we don't get any financial assistance, we're totally lost. There is no way the village could fund improvements to the line without county, federal, and state financial assistance -- direct assistance, not debt."

Mrs. Rauker agreed.

"We desperately need help," she said. "I don't know how we can do it without it."

Asked what is next for the village and its residents, Caber said, "We wait."

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