The Trashing of Ferris, Texas

When a giant came to a tiny town, it soon became clear that almost everyone has a price.

The landfill's current site is nearly tapped out, according to officials of Waste Management, which maintains a regional office in Irving. The expansion could extend Skyline's operational life by as much as 37 years.

After weighing emotional and technical testimony on the landfill, TNRCC hearings examiner Linda Sorrells will issue her recommendation on Skyline's expansion application any day now. The agency's staff has already endorsed the landfill's technical plan.

After Sorrells issues her report, the matter goes before the three-member commission, which could make its decision about the landfill--and Ferris' future--as early as December 12. The commission usually abides by the hearings examiner's recommendation. Clear-cut reasons are required to overturn it.

If the expansion permit goes through--even the landfill's harshest critics R> wager 50-50 odds of approval--some residents of The Flats will be surrounded on three sides by dumping grounds. Ferris will be changed forever.

Yet a lot of folks will tell you the landfill is the best thing that's ever happened to Ferris, a town of 2,200 that straddles the Dallas-Ellis county line.

And in many ways, they're right.
Ten seconds on city streets makes it clear that Ferris has seen better days. There's no need to enforce speed limits here, as Jim Lattimore, Waste Management's area business development manager, rightly observes. On these profusely pitted streets, 15 miles per hour is top speed. Then there's the housing. Many homes on Ferris' west side are in a state of gross disrepair, their weathered walls and porches warped and peeling paint.

If Waste Management gets its expansion permit, it'll channel a minimum of $400,000 a year into Ferris' city coffers, through a royalty fee the company pays on refuse hauled to the dump. That's nearly one-fourth of Ferris' annual municipal budget. That "host fee," as it's called, has opened many eyes in Ferris, where Waste Management is already the town's biggest taxpayer. "When you get something with the potential of being as beneficial to the community as this--the city is looking at a veritable windfall," proclaims Lattimore.

But the dividends don't end there. Waste Management already has bought out a handful of homeowners in The Flats who literally dwelled in the shadow of the dump. They've relocated to finer premises in other parts of town.

One of them is Pearlie Faye Richard. Waste Management purchased her small, prefab home--situated within a few feet of the landfill's southern border--for a six-figure price in 1993. The company also bought out and relocated an elderly woman who'd lived in a home with a dirt floor.

Calvin Booker, Waste Management's door-to-door man in The Flats, boasts about all the happy customers he's made through the buyout program. Says Booker: "I can't think of one person who didn't feel hR> e's received a better quality of life."

Waste Management, in fact, has offered a minimum of $45,000 to all Ferris homeowners within 800 feet of the dumping ground--provided the company gets its permit. The multimillion-dollar buyout plan, required as part of an agreement with the city of Ferris, affects a neighborhood where few homes are appraised at more than $25,000. So far, 56 of 77 homeowners have signed on. Others hope to sell, but are holding out for more money.

Only $1,000 of the money came up-front. But many struggling Flats residents leaped at the chance for "free money," as one homeowner described it. The rest of the price is due when Waste Management gets its permit--and the window for appeals expires.

All in all, it's a powerful inducement for residents to lie low and keep quiet, the Rev. Coumpy observes. Besides, if Waste Management's going to win anyway, people reason, it makes sense for everyone living near the dump to bail out.

Waste Management has spread its largesse around, bestowing all kinds of goodies on city agencies and civic groups. Among them are bullet-proof vests for the seven-member Ferris police department ($3,700); a van for the senior center; free garbage pickup and brown plastic trash bins for everyone in town (valued at $100,000 annually); and four artificial Christmas trees for Ferris schools. That's not to mention all those educational visits from "Captain Waste"--the costumed Waste Management superhero who preaches to school kids about recycling.

The future promises even greater things, including a modest total of 40 new jobs--positions needed to handle the landfill's increased capacity. Waste Management has also pledged to relocate one of its trash-hauling centers from Dallas to Ferris.

Many town residents praise Waste Management's operation of the dump, which had been cited by the state for numerous problems under its previous owner. Danny Satterwhite, whose car repair shop is an informal gathering place for pro-Waste Management supporterR> s, says Skyline landfill "is the cleanest place in town." And Fay Herron, the 72-year-old director of Ferris' senior center, agrees that Waste Management has made tremendous improvements at Skyline. She's also benefited directly from the company: it pays her salary at the senior center. "I don't see any sense fighting it now," she says. "They've been good to us."

As Jim Lattimore sees it, Waste Management has offered Ferris a new and brighter future--a chance to regain the prosperity and growth that died with the brickyards.

Jimmie Birdwell, Ferris' mayor for the past 10 years and a onetime landfill foe, agrees. "Only time will tell if the landfill is good for Ferris overall," he says. "But I think it's a good business proposition."

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