A Texas politician wants to provide emergency services to constituents who don’t have them. Will they let him?
In unincorporated West Odessa, residents relish their freedom. And they also go without basic services. Ector County Judge Dustin Fawcett, a young Republican with Ronald Reagan good looks and politics, wants to change that.
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WEST ODESSA — Two brick houses stand beside each other on a remote street off the main highway. A statue of Jude the Apostle, the patron saint of hope and lost causes, stands guard in front of the compound.
The houses are not mansions, but Jesús Sierra is proud of them all the same. After all, he built them himself, layering each brick. In just two years, he turned a blighted lot in the middle of nowhere into a home.
The freedom to build a life with no questions asked is a rarity found in West Odessa, an unincorporated area here in Ector County. There is no city council, no municipality with zoning laws. Only state and federal laws apply.
It’s what attracted Sierra.
“Here, I can build what I want,” Sierra said. “And I don’t owe anybody a thing.”
“And it’s tranquil,” his wife, Ernestina, said as she gazed at the parcel of land where the family of seven lives their idyllic life.
While the taxes are low and the government barely exists, there is a cost to those who desire to live unbothered and under the radar.
In this libertarian Utopia, dogs and donkeys run free. Mansions are built next to junkyards. An infinite number of tires for cars and trucks litter the side of the road and are piled high on acres of deserted land. Oil wells pop out of nowhere. Businesses known as game rooms, which provide space for legally dubious sexual activity and other questionable undertakings, dot the map.
For thousands of residents in West Odessa, running water is a luxury with no widespread infrastructure to support it. Neighborhoods are connected by uneven dirt roads. Driving conditions are choppy at best and risky at worst. If there is a speed limit — no one behind the wheel of a large pickup is paying attention to it. Streetlights are few and far between.
The nearest hospital and police department are in the city, miles from reach.
Ector County Judge Dustin Fawcett — a newly elected millennial with Ronald Reagan's movie star good looks and conservative values — hopes to slowly civilize the sprawling arid acres that make up West Odessa.
He hopes to foster an unlikely relationship between himself and the residents who moved there hoping to steer clear of bureaucrats and politicians. And in doing so, establish an emergency service district.
The plan — which will require voter approval — would bring ambulances and a fire rescue department to the residents’ backyards. The cost of introducing those services to West Odessa would be roughly $1 million annually through a new property tax, Fawcett said.
On a fundamental level, Fawcett is asking West Odessans to grapple with timeless American questions: How much government do you want in your life? And what are you willing to give up for the greater good?
Residents are either skeptical or outright opposed to Fawcett’s plan. Frustrated residents in a crowded room told him as much during a town hall this summer.
“You’re a liar, Dustin!” one resident yelled, saying the county had already fallen short of helping West Odessans.
Fawcett said the meeting served its purpose and piqued the interest of residents.
It will take more than one town hall to persuade them to vote in favor of the services, he said.
Months later, residents are still unsure what to make of Fawcett's pitch. Many shrugged it off, an early indication of apathy the county judge — the highest ranking elected official in Ector County — will have to overcome in order to drive people to the polls.
“It's a hell of a challenge, but this is a majority of the reason I ran,” Fawcett said. “Because if something isn't done soon, then the future is very bleak for the region.”
Unincorporated regions can be the most Texas part of Texas — freewheeling and wild, it’s each rugged individual for themselves.
It’s unclear how many Texans live in unincorporated Texas because boundaries change regularly.
Official census figures report an estimated 32,000 people live in West Odessa. Fawcett believes the population is much higher at 50,000, nearly half the size of the city of Odessa.
As oil production reaches record levels in the Permian Basin, the petroleum-rich region of West Texas that includes Ector and Midland counties, workers flock to the region in droves, settling in trailer parks and man camps that offer a bare minimum livelihood.
Ector County provides what services it can afford to West Odessa through the sheriff’s department, ambulances, and road crews, but it's stretched thin. The money the county receives through current taxes is not enough to massage the growing pains.
Emergency calls can take up to an hour. The only service in the 62 square miles is a volunteer fire department, a group of seven that has responded to over 600 emergencies this year alone.
Such was the case for Jesús Rodríguez, who lives with his wife, Anita, in one of West Odessa’s many backstreets. One night, the couple recounted, Rodríguez, 67, suffered a stroke, and Anita called 911. But the ambulance wouldn’t reach their home for almost a half hour, they said.
So they waited.
“It was scary,” Anita said.
Rodriguez is recovering and keeps himself busy in a makeshift junkyard with odds and ends he’s accumulated over the years. And the best part, Rodríguez said, is that he gets to have a chicken coop, which is illegal in Odessa due to a local ordinance preventing residents from owning livestock, fowl, or hogs.
The couple said they dislike getting involved in politics but agreed that the area needs the support. Rodríguez said the volunteer fire department needs help. He would vote for the emergency district if it would help the fire department.
If approved, the emergency service district would add to the recently established water district. The county created the board that oversees and administers the utility to West Odessa, but its reach is limited. The board serves properties by relying on existing water infrastructure, which does not run through every home. And the utility’s million-dollar budget has not been enough to feed every property.
Last year, Maria Miranda moved to West Odessa with her three children after her husband, Adrian, got a job working in the oil fields. After 17 years in the Chicago suburbs, West Odessa seemed like an alien planet.
She fits a family of six into a cramped RV, using every nook and cranny as either storage or a pantry. It’s affordable, she said, and the family gets by with little. It’s organized chaos. Every shelf in the trailer is reserved for the children’s most frequently worn clothing. The kitten’s litter and bed are in a small restroom. Outside, she keeps the items that don’t fit in the trailer’s interior in storage bins by category.
Behind the trailer, she keeps a row of bins for the laundry next to the washing machine, as well as a clothesline for drying.
The washing machines are connected to a communal water system beneath the ground. It provides water to a row of 15 trailers in that park. It’s a hassle with so many loads, but it beats paying $70 at the laundromat each trip, she said.
Miranda said she didn’t know much about the county’s efforts to introduce more services. She barely has time to think about it, with everything she keeps up with. Still, she said, more services would be nice.
“It surprised me that a lot of people lived like this,” Miranda said.
The couple applied for a house in Odessa proper, but their application had been denied because neither had strong enough credit, she said. But the RV is a temporary arrangement while they figure out what’s next.
Until then, the family likes to drive around, searching for vacant lots — not just any plot of land, she said, but the one they’ll own. One day, they’ll have enough savings to settle down in their corner of West Odessa. They’ll live in one of those big trailers she’s seen in the neighborhood, she said, and the kids will love all that freedom.
A previous version of this article incorrectly reported how many Texans live in unincorporated area. There is no official number kept by the census and boundaries change constantly.
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