Lawmakers say provision targeting Elkharts sewer policy will pass
Posted: 04/22/2013 at 5:41 pm
By: Dan Spalding
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State Representative Tim Wesco addresses the issue of compact fees at the monthly Third House meeting at the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce Saturday, April 20, 2013. Wesco stated he is opposed to Elkhart Mayor Dick Moore's utility moratorium. (Truth Photo By Jennifer Shephard)
The amendment authored by State Rep. Tim Wesco, R-Osceola, was transferred from one bill to another Monday, April 22, and Moore spoke against it twice during a visit to Indianapolis the same day.
The amendment widens the definition of what can be appealed to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission to include all types of fees in sewer agreements established by municipalities for sewer customers located beyond city limits.
The legislation could have a far-reaching impact.
“The amendment, as it stands, in House Bill 1307, opens the door for everyone who’s been paying the compact fee for the last 10 or 15 years to appeal to the IURC,” Wesco said.
So essentially, what started as a lobbying effort by a coalition of businesses being forced to shift to a more costly compact fee policy this year could allow 63 other business owners outside of the city to appeal a policy they’ve been paying on for years.
If passed into law and an appeal is sought and won, it could potentially cost the city of Elkhart millions of dollars in future revenues.
The amendment was shifted from Senate Bill 385 to House Bill 1307 because it fits better, according to Wesco.
The legislation still faces a few hurdles as the General Assembly wraps up its session in the next week or so, but Dave Wolkins, chairman of the House Environmental Affairs Committee, said he believes it stands a good chance of becoming law.
That’s a change from last week when Wesco expressed a willingness to pull the amendment after learning of an offer from Moore to state lawmakers in which the city would establish a broad-based task force that would look at developing a payment policy for commercial customers outside of the city.
The tentative deal would have given the city and the state more time to look at how they want to approach policies involving customers outside of the city.
When Moore issued a public statement earlier this month criticizing the amendment, he simultaneously announced a moratorium on new sewer and water connections for customers outside of the city. Wesco said he believed a deal between the state and city would lead to the rescinding of the moratorium.
However, Moore’s offer last week did not specifically address the moratorium and Moore said Friday he intended to keep the moratorium in place until the task force is formed and starts crafting a solution.
That led Wesco to reverse his stand and continue to support the amendment.
Wolkins said Moore was asked about the moratorium Monday and that the mayor remained steadfast on the issue.
Wolkins said “it’s probably too late” to reverse course in hopes of seeing the amendment removed.
“I’m pretty confident that the mayor’s reluctance to back off the moratorium will do him in,” Wolkins said.
Wesco said he talked with Moore and other city officials Monday about the moratorium and his frustrations over how that played out.
“We continued to disagree on that issue,” Wesco said.
Moore did not return a call seeking comment late Monday afternoon.
Moore has argued against the amendment, saying the setting of rates is a local issue.
Wesco said he believes the amendment will pass.
Wolkins and Wesco both said they believe other cities have taken note of how Elkhart charges much more for customers outside of the city and that those communities might be inclined to adopt similar policies in the future.
“There’s a general consensus that it may be just an Elkhart issue right now, but it’s going to be a statewide issue” in the future, Wesco said.
“I made the point in conference committee that the whole section of the code that allows for appeal is pointless if we do not expand the meaning of rates and charges ... to include any fee or charge,” Wesco said.
House Bill 1307 allows customers outside of the city who are paying more than 15 percent than what city customers, prior to March 31, 2012, to appeal to IURC.
If approved, House Bill 1307 would go into affect July 1, Wesco said.
Wesco said he hopes the city can still work out a compromise before July 1 if the legislation becomes law.
The bill still has to be signed off by four legislators, including two from each party, Wolkins said.