The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Editorials

January 16, 2014

Bill Jones | City's viability may hings on sewer policy

JOHNSTOWN — I am going to recite a parable about how Jacksville became a ghost town.

Jacksville was once a thriving community full of hardworking, industrious people. There was plenty of employment in the mines and the two mine-mouth silver smelters that kept busy day and night. Nobody would ever have to worry about a job, or so the people thought.

Then disaster struck. The silver veins gave out and the mines had to close. Without the silver, there was no need for the smelters and they closed as well. Seemingly all at once, the formerly prosperous people were without incomes and many moved on, greatly reducing the population of the town.

Members of the town council feverishly sought new industry, but little could be found. There was enough to keep the remaining residents in an impoverished existence, but nobody was getting rich – at least not many.

As time passed, the council felt obliged to make the town more attractive – hoping to make Jacksville a magnet to draw both industry and residents. They just didn’t know what to do.

About that time, a heavy rain washed contents of the shallowly dug outhouses into the little stream. The Indian tribe that lived a short distance downstream didn’t like that. It made the fish taste funny, as well as the drinking water. So the chief went and complained to the Jacksville Town Council.

Something had to be done, and a grand idea was born: Let’s pass an ordinance that all residents must get indoor plumbing and do away with all outhouses.

“While we’re at it,” one imaginative council member suggested, “Let’s set standards for high-quality fixtures so everybody in town will be better off in the long run.”

So they set high standards.

The plumbing fixtures were available only in Kansas City, St. Louis or New Orleans. They were expensive and required transport over a long distance by horse and wagon. That was very expensive also, especially for people of Jacksville who were living hand-to-mouth already.

It wasn’t long before people began abandoning their homes in Jacksville and moving out, singly at first and then by dozens. They simply couldn’t afford to live in Jacksville any longer. The town council was left with a greatly devastated tax base and a lot of abandoned houses it couldn’t afford to remove.

Jacksville had become a ghost town.

Any comparison between the mythical town of Jacksville and the city of Johnstown is purely intentional. It is meant to be a warning about what could happen here if there is no change in the city’s sewer policy if the rule of pressure testing residential sewer lines is enforced.

Johnstown is an aging community with an abundance of older people who are on living on fixed incomes. They can’t afford to pay for the elaborate sewer repairs that are required only by our own city council. In some cases, the required sewer work would cost more than the people paid for their homes when they were purchased or erected.

For a very significant number, it may be more feasible to abandon their homes in the city and move out. They certainly couldn’t expect to sell them unless the required sewer work was completed. It would be a “catch 22” situation, and the city would be left with a lot more abandoned structures. It can’t afford to remove the ones it already has.

We can understand city council’s desire to “do things right” with its required sewer work, but in this case “right” may be wrong. It may be wiser to reconsider the advice of its engineering firm – advice that makes sense except for the economic condition of those who are affected  – the homeowners.

If Johnstown becomes a ghost town, future generations can look back and reflect that at least the city council meant well when it sounded the city’s death knell.

Bill Jones is a retired senior writer for The Tribune-Democrat.

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