Council faces many choices in trash debate

Posted on Aug. 19, 2012 at 1:00 a.m.

ELKHART — Trash talking will pile up to a new height Monday night as Elkhart city leaders consider — for the third time in about a dozen years — the merits of asking residents to pay for garbage service.

And while the discussion could veer in numerous directions, Moore said Monday’s decision is a fork in the road: develop a new revenue stream or begin making cuts.

Moore views the proposed fee as the fairest way to generate new revenues and says many other towns are moving in the same direction. A study by the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns indicates 24 of 36 towns and cities surveyed have trash fees.

Among area towns that have fees: Columbia City ($9.50), Fort Wayne ($9.95), South Bend ($10.56) and Plymouth, ($15.08). Mishawaka, which is similar in population to Elkhart, charges $12.80.

Moore says his administration has trimmed the city budget by more than $3 million over the past four years — a result of state-established caps on property tax revenues four years ago.

Those limits on property tax collections have exceeded expectations provided by the state and total close to $10 million, according to the mayor.

Even if the fee is passed, Moore said his proposed budget for 2013 will be $483,000 less than the current budget. He said the city is also looking at getting rid of several park properties.

Several council members predict passage of the trash fee could be an uphill battle.

The council is divided on whether the Moore administration has done enough to trim the budget.

“If you look at the city budget for the last 20 or 30 years, it probably increased just about every year continuously until Mayor Moore came into office,” said councilman Dave Osborne, a Democrat.

He said the city’s water and sewer rates are better than many other cities.

“It’s time for people to wake up in Elkhart,” Osborne said. “We are continually rated one of the more affordable communities in the nation.”

Critics, led chiefly by Republican city councilman David Henke, say the mayor is too resistant to making tough cuts that businesses and even families have had to make in tough economic times.

“It would be easy to cut $2 million from the budget right now,” Henke said.

Henke believes council needs to look at what the residents can afford to pay and not what the government leaders believe they need.

If cities establish new fees to make up for lost tax revenues, he said, the impact of the state legislation is “null and void.”

Some of those who spoke against the trash fee last week rallied behind a long list of proposals suggested by Henke. Among others, those include adopting automated payroll and direct deposit, privatizing Ideal Beach, leasing the city golf course, limiting take-home vehicles, scaling back the mowing of yards and shoveling of sidewalks on private property, scrutinizing city worker benefits and improving collection fees for city services.

Henke said the mayor’s trash fee plan is fraught with inequities, some of which stem from widely varying levels of garbage that families and individuals produce.

Henke, in an interview Thursday, tossed out another idea in which the city shifts to trash collection every 10 days instead of every week and adopts a collection model based on the volume of trash produced by residents.

Osborne said he sensed that many of those who spoke recently against the fee are opposed to any kind of hike and probably align themselves with Grover Norquist, a national figure who adamantly advocates a no-new-tax outlook.

Councilman Rod Roberson, a Democrat, said the timing of the General Assembly’s decision to cap property taxes combined with the recession caused a perfect storm for cities.

Municipalities, which have significant pockets of poverty, are left in a more difficult position.

“Elkhart has managed it as well as any other city,” Roberson said.

Roberson argues the state legislation has done more to further impoverish low-income families than an $11.35 trash fee could.

Monday’s council meeting begins at 7 p.m.

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