ELKHART — Despite knowing they have little choice but to implement new sewer rate hikes, the Elkhart City Council debated the issue in committee for more than two hours Thursday night and still didn’t set the stage for a final vote.
Republican councilman David Henke, who recently vowed more scrutiny of city affairs after the mayor vetoed a Republican amendment to the 2013 budget, said he has serious concerns about the rate hike.
But Arvis Dawson, the mayor’s assistant — who would have lost his job under the Republican budget plan — suggested the delay in a vote is political.
Dawson accused Henke of being an “obstructionist” following the meeting.
“What you saw is a pattern of what the next three years will be like,” Dawson said.
The city council had expected to vote on the rate hike today, but the committee — which oddly consists of the entire city council — will have to consider the proposals again at a later date.
The city hopes to establish the new sewer rate so it takes effect in January.
The council prefers to debate financial issues in the committee stage and then reserve the city council’s meeting for a short discussion and a vote.
Even though four of the five council members who attended Thursday’s meeting sought to send the rate hike plan and another related proposal to the city council, Henke blocked the efforts.
The other proposal involves simplifying the city’s policy on compact fees used when providing city water and sewer to residents outside of the city.
Any effort to send the proposals to the council needed five votes and Henke made it clear he was the “fifth vote.”
Both proposals failed by 4-1 votes. Four council members were absent, meaning all five members had to agree.
Under the proposed rate hike, which is needed to fund a federally mandated sewer project, residential customers would see their monthly sewer bills rise $12.30 over the next three years. The average residential customer would see a hike of $6.36 in 2013, $2.09 in 2014 and $3.85 in 2015.
The 20-year sewer project is expected to cost upward of $135 million and was agreed on by the city of Elkhart after the federal government forced the city’s hand by taking the matter to court.
The project, already been under way for several years, will significantly reduce the amount of sewage that empties into area waterways.
A councilman asked hypothetically what would happen if the city halted the work.
City engineer Mike Machlan said the city would face a wave of fines. One set of fines could total $2 million per year and another would seek $1,000 for every day the project does not move forward, Machlan said.
Henke said the city has done a poor job in preparing for the project. He said more money should have been set aside sooner. He was also critical of what he considers a lack of transparency and accused the city of possible cost-shifting — using money intended for the project for other uses.
Laura Kolo, utility services manager, denied that accusation after Thursday’s meeting and said all sewer-related monies have been used for sewer-related work.
John Skomp, a consultant with Crowe Horwath, told the council the fee hikes were scheduled as a way of lessening the impact to customers and seeks more revenues only as the project progresses.
The council heard complaints and concerns about the rate hike plan from a half-dozen people including a few who live outside the city and already pay a much higher sewer rate through a compact agreement with the city.
About 12 people attended the meeting.
Two county residents said they pay about $90 per month and the rate hikes would push that over $100.
On the plan to simplify the compact fees, Henke objected to a proposal that would give non-profit groups, including churches, a discounted rate. He questioned the fairness of such an arrangement and pointed out that other customers would end up paying for those discounts.
Councilman Brent Curry, though, cited Biblical scripture and suggested the city should give churches a discount.
“If you give to the church this little bit of a break, you will be blessed, so I think you ought to be careful about charging churches,” Curry said.
Henke, seconds later, told Curry, “your statement solidified” his opposition to the discount.
He said he objected to Curry’s desire to obligate all city residents to his personal sense of stewardship to the church.
Councilman Dave Osborne sought to amend the proposal to remove the discount, but Henke declined.