GOSHEN -- Some Elkhart County officials are questioning the new stormwater fee, meant to help keep the rivers and lakes here clean, indicating it may get a second look, perhaps in a year.
"I am convinced it's much ado about nothing and it's a waste of taxpayer money," said Elkhart County Councilman James Hartman.
He told his fellow council members at a gathering Tuesday that he was prepared to vote out the annual fee, which, in its first year, has brought in nearly $2 million. But his proposal didn't have any takers and the plan, though discussed, never went any further.
"Most of us don't like it," John Letherman, the council president, said after Tuesday's deliberations, called to work on the county's 2008 spending plan. He noted, however, that the programs the fee will cover are mandated by the federal government.
Council Vice President Dennis Sharkey, meanwhile, counseled a bit of patience.
"We just don't know how it's going to pan out," he said, alluding to questions about whether the fee is generating more funds than necessary and talk of reducing it down the road. "Give us a year."
This is the first year for the stormwater fee, required under terms of the federal Clean Water Act and assessed on property owners in Elkhart, Goshen, Bristol and the county's rural corners.
Homeowners must pay $15 -- included on property tax bills sent out last month -- while commercial property owners must pay $15 for every 2,800 square feet of hard surface on their land, such as rooftops and parking lots.
Hartman said the fee totaled around $300 or $400 on a piece of land he owns and that he's not the only one cursing it. Some constituents are saying "almost exactly what I'm saying," he said, along with some "high county officials" he wouldn't name.
The fee pulled in $1.9 million, according to County Treasurer Larry Ernest, though his office billed a total of $2.1 million. Some, whether deliberately or through oversight, didn't pay their share, accounting for the difference.
Despite all the fuss, Eric Kurtz, the stormwater coordinator and administrator of the programs the fee will fund, says the money is vital in keeping Elkhart County rivers and lakes clean. The St. Joseph and Elkhart rivers are deemed "impaired" by state environmental officials, he said, and chemicals carried by stormwater runoff are partly to blame.
"I just think we should be good stewards of that," Kurtz said.
He said the funds generated are about what was expected.
Whether the fee is reduced is a topic for elected officials to debate in years to come, he said, but he questions whether a dip is in the offing.
"I doubt there will be a reduction, quite honestly," he said. "I think the requirements will continue to grow. It's not something that's going to go away."
Of the $2.1 million the fee was to pull in, $900,000 is earmarked for programs in the county, $770,000 for the city of Elkhart, $380,000 for Goshen and $46,000 for Bristol.
Contact Tim Vandenack at firstname.lastname@example.org.