My Kingdom for a Sewer. But What About My Councilman?

The other night after talking all day to people about the no-sewer zone around the new University of North Texas at Dallas campus in Southern Dallas, I got to wondering. If the rest of us in other parts of the city had to give up a single part of the normal public infrastructure that keeps us all going, which one would we choose?

For example, which would you rather have, drinking water or a sewer system? Cops? A firehouse nearby? See what I mean? It's not easy.

The no-sewer zone is an area of about 1,000 acres, roughly the size of Highland Park, where the city of Dallas has never seen fit to install sewer mains. Not sewer pipes: you have to pay for those yourself to connect your own property or your own subdivision to the main. I'm talking about the big city-owned mains. There are no mains to connect to in the no-sewer zone.

We have talked about it a lot here. The mayor has a new initiative called "Grow South" to try to overcome some of the inequities between the north and south sides of town by providing economic incentives and mentoring. I've talked to you about people like Robert Pitre, who owns 120 acres in the no-sewer zone. Pitre's position is that he just wants a sewer.

The money has been approved for sewer mains in the no-sewer zone. The city staff has even designed them already. But the city councilman for that district, Tennell Atkins, won't allow any sewer mains to be built for that part of his district. He says putting them in now might screw up some big development plans he has for the area later.

So let's not get into all of that. I want to keep it simple. This is what I've been noodling around: In the no-sewer zone, they have all the other stuff the city provides for the rest of us -- water, cops, firehouses, curbs, gutters, grease-disposal awareness campaigns. But no sewers. So I was thinking, what if they could swap?

What if the people in the area around the UNT-Dallas campus could give something else back to the city in exchange for sewers? Sure, the grease-disposal awareness campaign, yeah, they'd trade that back in a minute for a sewer system. But let's be fair to the city, OK? It has to be something of roughly commensurate value.

When I was trying to figure out that part, I came up with the idea of looking at it the other way. Maybe the best way to put a value on everything the city does for us is to try to figure which parts most of us would trade for a sewer system if we didn't have one.

What about water? You can buy water in the store, but you can't go to the bathroom in the store, not all the time or they'll kick you out. So I might trade running water for a sewer.

I'd hate to give up the cops on account of my neighbors on Friday nights. And by the way, I am NOT the one who calls them. I could see trading firemen for a sewer, because how often does your house burn down compared with how often you have to go to the bathroom? Tough choice, though. Roll of the dice.

That got me thinking about the City Council. Just think how important it is to people to have their own council member. That's something we have fought for in this country pretty much since the British. What if your city councilperson were the one thing standing between you and having a sewer? You know, that kind of changes the equation a little on basic liberty.

Don't get me wrong, I believe City Council people have enormous value to their districts. In fact, I believe having your own City Council person has a value right up there with having a sewer. You could probably call it an even trade.

What if they did this, as a part of the mayor's Grow South deal? What if they gave people a straight-up choice? Which would you rather have? Tennell Atkins or a sewer?

That would be a very interesting one to watch, would it not? What do you say? Should we hold our breath for that to happen? Or hold our noses?

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze