One of the burdens of a life misspent in journalism monitoring the activities of government, both large and small, is a deeper understanding (and occasionally even respect for) the challenges of providing basic services to residents. Most Americans expect water to come out of the tap, the traffic lights to work, local roads to be paved, the bridges kept standing as needed. They don’t think of all the pipes and pumps, the wells and water towers, and especially how sewage treatment plants work to process the material people have so casually flushed away. Here’s a clue: It involves lots of hungry bacteria, giant settling tanks and workers with a high tolerance for odors.
A friend of mine who serves as mayor of a little town in a neighboring state recently told me of a sewage experience I’d never heard of before. Like most things that come to her attention in a town smaller than the average suburban subdivision, it started out as a complaint. A local renter had a sewage backup and wanted the town to fix it. The mayor checked the records. Sorry, she told him, the town doesn’t provide sewage service to that property. Better check with the landlord and call someone to clean out the septic tank. Case closed. Except it wasn’t. On closer inspection, the septic field had been bypassed, there was a sewer line — an illegal one — that someone (likely a previous owner) had installed years ago. That pipe had become blocked.
Now, some may not blink an eye over such news. After all, people have been known to steal cable service. They piggyback on Wi-Fi (Hint: Don’t use your name and address as your password). Sometimes, they’ll even run an extension cord or garden hose to tap electricity or water from a neighbor. But sewer lines are different. Converting from septic to municipal service is quite the ordeal. You can’t just make a trip to Home Depot for some PVC and a shovel. Wastewater lines are gravity fed, so they must be carefully installed to run away and down. It usually takes a backhoe and some skill. And that’s not even counting the challenge of connecting your feeder line to the main and providing sewer cleanouts — capped entry points so that potential blockages can be removed. So this means that none of this happened by accident. Whoever had the knowledge to do this also had the knowledge that it was illegal and was risking it simply to save a hookup fee and the modest quarterly billing.
I was stunned. The mayor was not. Although her town is small, she’d seen this kind of chutzpah before. And it may reflect a lot of the public attitude toward government, again both large and small, that has become so pervasive in this country. Of course, if you can pull the rug over the town office you do it. Of course, your neighbor doesn’t say anything about it. Nor will a contractor, perhaps. Of course, you know you might eventually get caught when two-and-two are added, but everybody does it, right? You’ll just get a slap on the wrist.
Apparently, that casual view of integrity gets around. Certainly, it extended to senior Trump administration officials over the last four years. The latest revelation is that some in the Trump circle treated pricey G-7 gifts intended for foreign leaders as their own personal door prizes when a summit was canceled last year, according to The New York Times. Or, closer to home, there was the sense of entitlement that allowed Roy McGrath, Gov. Larry Hogan’s former chief of staff who arranged for a six-figure severance from the Maryland Environmental Service, to portray himself as a victim when he was indicted last week on charges that run from illegal wiretapping to falsified time sheets.
Government corruption is nothing new. But diminished public trust in government institutions appears to be worsening. Pew Research Center polling shows it’s around the lowest ever recorded by the survey. And the consequences of that are serious. Not just that some town loses out on its $2,000 hookup charge or a sewage plant gets a few more gallons to handle every day. The loss of respect is one reason why people will accept elaborate conspiracy theories before they’ll trust public health authorities to advise them on COVID-19 vaccinations. Americans who might have at least questioned Donald Trump’s pervasive lying, his fomenting insurrection and his attempt at something akin to a coup are comfortable posting “Trump Won” bumper stickers and standing behind their man no matter what. You think they really believe the Big Lie or that they just don’t care if it advances their favored candidate’s interests? We don’t do right and wrong anymore, we do us versus them.
Anyway, the mayor is still investigating the sewer line, but she doesn’t expect to find the culprit. The current owner will likely get stuck with the hookup fee, but there probably won’t be a penalty. In other words, the perpetrator got away with it. Sometimes, sewage service just happens.
Peter Jensen is an editorial writer at The Sun; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.