ELKHART — The city of Elkhart can add residents of Valley View Hills subdivision to the list of commercial customers outside of the city who are upset with the new compact fee proposal.
More than 120 people turned out for a meeting Tuesday at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer south of the city limits to learn what can be done about the city’s request that they sign compact fees in exchange for continued sewer service.
Attempts to shift residents to the compact fee is the latest in what some consider a long battle with the city over sewer service and lingering concerns of possible annexation since parts of the subdivision abutt the city boundaries.
Complicating the issue is the fact that many, if not all of the agreements established years ago, have expired, said Steve Fader, who has assembled a large book chronicling the history of the sewer service dispute.
Many of the residents are on the old “three times rate,” meaning they pay three times the city rate since they live outside of the city limits.
The residential compact sought by the city would include a $50 fee plus a charge based on usage. While the total might be close to what some neighbors pay right now, the sticking point for many involves a provision in the agreement that leaves residents open to the possibility of being annexed into the city without a legal right to oppose it.
Fader said he was told that once the compact fees are signed, the city will assess the feasibility of whether it wants to annex part or all of the subdivision. Some of the decisions will be depend on location of the property and whether it is contiguous to the city.
If that happens, Fader told the crowd, “We have no say, we have no choice.”
The meeting was organized by Fader, Jon Nelson and Krista Lee and they were joined by David Henke, an Elkhart City Council member who has served as an unofficial liaison with the subdivision.
Nobody from the city administration attended the meeting despite an invitation, according to Fader.
Laura Kolo, the city’s utility services manager, said today she did not attend because the city does not see any room for negotiations.
Including Valley View, the city is attempting to shift 123 homeowners over to compact agreements. Of those, about 60 have signed the agreements and some of those include Valley View residents.
“The city does not have any plans to deviate from that plan,” Kolo said.
Fader said the subdivision includes about 92 homeowners. It is south of Mishawaka Road and runs along Benham Avenue.
Residents had been asked to sign the agreement by Jan. 1, but many have refused and are upset with the lack of details offered by the city and the tone of the letter urging them to sign.
Many expressed anger over that annexation has suddenly be dovetailed into the sewer agreement.
“You should be able to make a decision for your own household whether you want to annex into the city of Elkhart. It should not be part of the compact,” Fader said.
Henke apologized on behalf of the city for the tone of the city letter and suggested people convey their concerns to the city administration.
By the end of the meeting, organizers were urging the crowd to attend the Feb. 4 city council meeting.
Lisa McKee who lives in the subdivision with one of her four children and her husband, agreed and told the crowd. “We got a huge crowd here tonight. Why not get that same crowd and go to the city meeting. I’m going to go,” McKee said.
City officials have also heard complaints from numerous commercial customers outside of the city who are being asked to sign a different compact fee that, in some cases, will lead to a 500 percent hike in sewer fees.
Mayor Dick Moore announced plans to rethink the commercial compact and relaxed the Jan. 1 deadline.
City officials have not made the same offer to Valley View residents, but Fader said Kolo told him that as long as residents are working in good faith with the city, they would not be penalized.
Ultimately, if residents do not sign the agreement the city could discontinue service, Kolo said.
Fader advised the crowd that if they feel they need to sign the agreement even though they oppose the terms of the agreement, they should indicate on the contract that they are signing it under duress.
Residents who are opposed to annexation don’t have any easy choice. If they would refuse and then somehow remain on the “three times rate,” they would face a large hike in their monthly bill in two or three years because the city rate will be rising a total of $26 in the next three years. That means their bills would rise an additional $78 by 2016.
If they sign the agreement, customers who generate small amounts of sewage would see bills of about $70, which includes the $50 compact fee.
Organizers said ultimately, individual homeowners need to decide if annexation and the extra city services would be worth the additional tax burden.