When our water was turned off one morning last January, we assumed it was due to the sinkhole slowly expanding across the width of our single-lane street in South Philadelphia. But we could only guess, as no one answered the phone at the Philadelphia Water Department, and the first city employee didn't show up on our street until four hours after the taps died. When one of my elderly neighbors asked how long it would take to restore service, the city guy said his crews were swamped. It took 27 hours.
With spotlights shining into the house and construction equipment rattling our walls, my wife and I spent most of that night wondering where we could go for a reprieve with a 2-month-old in below-freezing weather. North Carolina was an obvious place.
We moved there for my wife's new job, which she took so we could raise our son near family. Never again having to navigate the Philly Water Department's automated hotline was a bonus. Then we fell in love with a 1960s ranch house in an unincorporated township north of Durham, and I started to dream a little bigger: Better government is nice, but isn't less government even better? As of September, I no longer have to deal with any city's water department, because we have a well and a septic tank, as do lots of folks out in the county.
Like publicly maintained water systems in big cities, however, wells break. Ours pumped a hearty eight gallons a minute, but the water contained coliform bacteria, a well camera found cracks and gaps in the casing, and the pressure tank in the garage was rusted to hell. I soon wondered if we'd actually traded up. Then a real person answered the phone at the well company that our real estate agent recommended, and the employee who came to our house the next day called me en route to let me know his ETA. The inconvenience may have been lateral, but the customer service was several tiers above.
Moving from the city to the county also means I no longer have to deal with Philly's trash collectors, who routinely ripped bags and left their contents strewn the length of our block. My trash, like my water, is now my problem. Since there are many people out in the county, there are also many private companies picking up trash. We went with a company in Efland, which sold us a nice big can and weekly roadside pickup for $30 a month.
Like the well, this arrangement has tradeoffs: The private company collects only what's in the can, and we only get one, while Philly's trash trucks would take the contents of your house if you wrapped the mattresses in plastic. That said, it's a big can, and our new trash collectors manage to get all of our trash in their truck. They also text us a reminder every Wednesday night.
Living without government services isn't necessarily cheaper or easier than putting up with municipal bureaucracies. Our monthly water bill in Philly averaged $50, which means we spent roughly eight years' worth of water payments to upgrade our well. When we have trash that won't fit in the bin, we'll have to pay a junk hauler (or rent a truck). In a year or two, we'll need to have the septic tank pumped. Eventually, it may need to be replaced.
But even if we can only hope to one day break even on cost, the satisfaction I get from being treated like a customer has its own value. Back in January, the Philly water employee told one of my irate neighbors that his department was funded exclusively by service fees. "We work for you!" is a nice thing to say, but it is irritating to hear when you can't get a human on the phone or take your business elsewhere. If the trash company were to take us for granted, we'd find another one; they know that, which is why they send us a pickup reminder every week.
"Get a well!" is not an answer for the people who want to stay in Philly or any other city plagued by sclerotic decline. But it is an option for individuals with the means and disposition to reclaim some responsibility.
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