Rate hike, payment plan advances to city council

Elkhart's sewer rate hike and a plan to simplify payments for sewer bills for customers outside of the city is now headed to city council for final consideration.
Posted on Nov. 9, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.

ELKHART — Elkhart’s sewer rate hike and a plan to simplify payments for sewer bills for customers outside of the city is headed to city council for final consideration.

Members of the council, serving as a committee of public works, advanced the two proposals Thursday and final approval could come when council meets Nov. 19.

The sewer rate hike won unanimous support from the committee after city officials pledged more transparency in tracking how the dollars are used. The plan to streamline payments for out-of-city residents, though, was slowed over the idea of providing a discount to non-profits and passed with a no-recommendation in a 5-2 vote.

Transparency became an issue voiced by councilman David Henke and two members of the public who want to make sure they can track how the money is being spent over the remaining years of the 20-year project that is estimated to cost about $135 million.

The rate hike will cost the average residential customer $12 per month more when fully implemented over three years and is needed to fund the combined sewer overflow project mandated by the federal government.

Utility services manager Laura Kolo said there were several ways to provide a clearer picture of how the money is being spent. Those could include monthly reports that are issued to the board of works and a spreadsheet that tracks the spending.

A member of the public suggested the information be included in monthly bills, but Kolo said she didn’t think that would be the best way to do it.

The more contentious issue during the two-hour debate involved a provision in the compact fee streamlining proposal in which not-for-profit groups would have a chance to seek a discount of 50 percent.

Kolo said the only not-for-profit group customer outside of the city that they know of that might seek the discount is the RV Hall of Fame.

Henke opposes offering the discount, arguing that other customers will end up paying for the discount.

Non-profit groups would have to petition council for the discount and would have to meet four criteria, including whether the group benefits the community.

Several council members said it would be difficult to gauge that factor.

Councilman Kyle Hannon also criticized the discount provision, saying it would be “impossibly cumbersome” to judge whether a group deserves the discount.

Councilman Brent Curry argued that not-for-profits inside the city pay much less in sewer fees. Henke countered by pointing out that those inside the city pay more taxes than those outside of the city.

Henke called the discount “a hot potato that nobody wants to touch.”

Ultimately, Henke said, it doesn’t cost the city any less to process waste from a not-for-profit than it does a standard customer.

Mayor Dick Moore opened the meeting supporting both proposals and the discount provision.

He called the discount a “benefit in kind” and suggested it would be “the right thing to do.”

Earlier this year, Moore worked out a plan with the Hall to forgive $115,000 in past bills to the hall of fame in an effort to have the group begin making regular sewer payments.

The hall had quit making payments several years ago when it was financially strapped and argued that its non-profits status should not obligate them to make payments.

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