By clinging to a moratorium on applications for water and sewer connections outside Elkhart, Mayor Dick Moore all but guaranteed new state legislation further limiting local government.
But perhaps just as damaging, he continues to portray Elkhart as a city indifferent or even hostile to economic development.
Moore ordered his moratorium after Rep. Tim Wesco, an Osceola Republican, amended a bill in the General Assembly in order to allow commercial customers to appeal utility rates set by municipalities. Wesco acted on behalf of about 75 businesses outside Elkhart who could see their sewer bills increase by more than 1,000 percent in some cases as a result of the city’s new sewer compact fee policy, approved late last year.
Given little debate by a distracted city council, the policy bases fees — in part — on assessed valuation. Wesco says without state intervention, other businesses could find themselves at the mercy of similar policies. A survey by The Elkhart Truth, however, couldn’t find any other cities basing fees on assessed value.
Moore correctly argued that the Wesco initiative erodes home rule and restricts the city’s right to set fees for services. County Commissioner Mike Yoder asked Wesco to reconsider the amendment, citing the possible loss of economic development opportunities, especially along C.R. 17.
Yoder said that while the law may have merit, it required careful study. Wesco apparently agreed, negotiating a tentative deal with Moore — you end the moratorium and I’ll scrap the amendment to Senate Bill 385.
“That was everyone’s understanding,” Wesco said at a Saturday, April 20, forum.
But the mayor told a reporter Thursday that he never offered to lift the moratorium, only to appoint a task force to examine the city’s compact fee policy.
That incensed Wesco, who said Saturday that if the moratorium remained in place, so would the amendment. Moore’s response?
“We didn’t fool him. I had a conversation with him and moratorium never came up,” Moore told a reporter.
So, according to Moore, the young state lawmaker never explicitly referenced the moratorium and the crafty old mayor eagerly took advantage of his opponent’s oversight. They both failed the public.
This isn’t a game. There are jobs and lives at stake. Once he entered into discussions with Moore, Wesco should have been committed to negotiate a clear and comprehensive deal; if he wanted the moratorium lifted in exchange for killing his amendment, he needed to say so. And if Wesco failed to address it specifically, it was Moore’s responsibility to raise it — not out of pity for an inexperienced lawmaker, but out of obligation to the people he serves.
Reports continue to grow about developments hampered by the utility moratorium. Dorinda Heiden-Guss, president of the Economic Development Corporation of Elkhart County, told a Truth reporter that prospective employers have approached the EDC about the controversy.
The city’s backward policy and Moore’s stubborn refusal to lift the moratorium paint Elkhart a city hostile to business — an image we cannot afford in a county with 9.4 percent unemployment.
The Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce believes the city should adopt a flat fee for commercial customers, a charge not tied to assessed value, and begin a policy of aggressively annexing property after extending sewer and water lines. A coalition of local businesses proposed a flat fee based on city rates, plus 15 percent.
In exchange for the appointment of a year-long task force, Moore agreed to drop his demand for a policy based on assessed value. We don’t have a year.
End the moratorium now, before Wesco’s amendment becomes law and ties the hands of city governments statewide. Lift it now, before it irreversibly damages our ability to attract new employers.
City councilors can pick between two solid proposals. They don’t need to develop a new sewer compact fee policy from scratch.
But they need to act quickly, because we’ve worked too hard rebuilding our economy to see it all thrown away.