The Trashing of Ferris, Texas

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

On the surface, it is hard to see why anyone in The Flats wouldn't take the $45,000, pack up, and seek greener, more fragrant hills. Birdwell says Waste Management has "helped those people get out of poverty, as far as their houses are concerned."

Yet bitterness and resentment still simmer in The Flats--and every other part of town.

Far from providing a new future for Ferris, notes the Rev. Coumpy, who lives about a half mile from the landfill, the expansion permit could just as easily signal its death. Why, he asks, would anyone want to settle in a little-bitty town whose most prominent feature is an enormous dump?

But not everyone is even looking that far down the road. No, there's a grievance that runs a lot deeper in Ferris, especially among its black residents. It's the way Waste Management has--piece by piece, with precision and skill--divided, then dismantled, The Flats.

You can sell a house and call it fair, Coumpy says. But you can't set a price on community.

Billy Don Dunn is livin' large these days in a sprawling brick home near the end of a curving, tree-shaded lane on the east side of town--the right side of the tracks. From here, in a neighborhood separated from the rest of the city by the four lanes of Interstate 45, one can neither see nor smell the giant heap of a landfill with which Billy Don's name will forever be associated in Ferris, Texas.

It's been nearly eight years now since Billy Don, Ferris' foremost entrepreneur--and for a total of six years, its mayor--swung the biggest deal of his life with Waste Management.

Dunn, a balding, middle-aged former railroad man who now serves as a "community liaison" consultant for Waste Management, hasn't a word to say publicly these days about the deal that brought him wealth and divided his town--or anything else, for that matter. "I have absolutely no comment," he told Dallas Observer, referring all queries back to Waste Management.

Getting others to talk about Dunn isn't tough, though. Just about everyone has an opinion on Billy Don.

"He's naturally going to be controversial to a lot of people, since he's connected to Waste Management," says Mayor Birdwell. "Now Billy Don has got his good points and his bad points. I think sometimes he's been involved too much in city politics. But he's never tried to influence me in any way as mayor."

"He's a very smart fella--real smart," says Bill Malloy, who served on the Ferris City Council when Dunn was mayor in the late 1970s. "He could sell an Eskimo a refrigerator. Yet personally I still like the guy. He's just Billy Don."

Bruce Springer, a southern Dallas County resident and longtime landfill foe, says Dunn is "pleasant and courteous, and very outgoing." But "he's a real crud," Springer adds. "He is the world's worst type of citizen.

"In Ferris, he had the opportunity to make himself a lot of money, and the fact that it was going to destroy his town didn't seem to matter."

Dunn's adventures in waste began around 1978, when Ferris was having a dismal time operating its little city dump, situated just north of The Flats. The state had cited the landfill on numerous occasions for poor operations, and it seems the city was in over its head, unable to correct the problems.

Along came Billy Don Dunn--who happened to be serving his second stint as the city's mayor. Sometime in early 1978, he took over operation of the city dump--"through necessity," he explained, in a letter to the state at the time.

Later that year, Dunn got the city to apply for a permit to expand its little landfill--from nine acres to 73, incorporating lands owned by Reliance Clay as well as the city of Ferris. The city also requested that Ferris' landfill permit be transferred to the mayor's firm--Trinity Valley Reclamation, Inc. About the same time, the Ferris City Council wrote up an agreement officially handing over operations of the dump to Dunn's firm.

Bill Malloy, who runs an insurance agency in Ferris, was on the council in 1978. He says Dunn offered the city a chance to continue operating its own dump, but Ferris--strapped for cash, as always--decided it wasn't able to do so.

Within a year, the state would approve both the expansion and the permit transfer. Later on, Ferris would agree to lease its landfill to Mayor Dunn in exchange for free dumping privileges. The city still owns its part of the property; Dunn purchased the rest from private owners.

Only a few people are on record as having opposed this original expansion--including Jimmie Birdwell, Ferris' current mayor. With little controversy, the city of Ferris, led by mayor Billy Don Dunn, decided to make the deal to turn over its expanded landfill to citizen Billy Don Dunn. (Dunn did not vote on the matter within the council; in Ferris, the mayor votes only to break a tie.)

Malloy, reflecting on Dunn's deft maneuvers in the late '70s, says, "One thing I've learned through the years is that even though things are confusing, invariably in the future you realize how and why those actions came into play. If something was done and didn't make sense, it all became clear in time."

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