ELKHART — Mayor Dick Moore’s political rival applauded his decision to reopen talks about a controversial ordinance related to sewer fees for commercial customers outside of the city.
But Republican councilman David Henke is taking a wait-and-see outlook as to what will develop from plans for a group to look into possible changes into how the city chooses to charge those customers.
Moore agreed Thursday to revisit the ordinance after he heard another round of complaints from affected business owners as well as council members on both sides of the political aisle.
Moore has said he’ll have city leaders and some affected business people provide input on possible changes.
Thursday’s decision marks the second time he’s expressed a willingness to rethink how the city should charge commercial customers outside of the city.
The council passed a compromise plan authored by Moore a week ago in which total fees would be phased in over two years. Most council members view it as a stop-gap measure.
Critic say the existing policy is unworkable for some businesses and some council members expressed concern that the issue could ultimately hurt the city’s ability to attract business and industry in the future.
Henke applauded the newest effort by Moore.
By late Friday morning — less than a day after Moore made the announcement — Henke said he had been contacted by seven people who thought it was a good sign.
“People were happy about it — as am I,” Henke said. “I appreciate the mayor being willing to open this up for everyone involved. It’s the proper thing to do.”
“I’m glad he understood the concerns of our business community,” he said.
Councilman Dave Osborne said the move by Moore shows leadership.
“It’s a good thing,” said Osborne, a city councilman who chairs the council’s finance committee.
Moore wants Osborne and council president Ron Troyer to represent council interest in future talks about the ordinance.
Both Osborne and Troyer are Democrats.
“The mayor knows Ron and I are willing to work with people on both sides of the aisle,” Osborne said.
Henke, though, thinks it should be “bipartisan, transparent, open and fair. Otherwise, this is a charade.”
“It’s a big issue and no one should be left out who wants to participate,” Henke said.
Henke said he believes Moore realized something had to happen after council president Roy Troyer promised to reopen debate and consider amending an ordinance that many council members now admit is flawed.
Approved late last year, the ordinance requires all businesses outside the city to shift from sewer service agreement to compact agreements.
About 60 or so commercial customers are still on sewer service agreements while just about as many have been on compact fees for years.
Compact fees are based on assessed property values. Sewer service agreements are based on usage and charge customers three times what they would pay if located inside the city.
The shift, according to some businesses, will result in fees rising 500 percent for many and as much as 1,300 percent for at least one company.
Those customers claim the hike is unacceptable and could force them to relocate their businesses, cease operations or even begin using portable toilets.
Elkhart County officials entered the fray last week, saying they would investigate the idea of establishing a wastewater treatment plant that could serve disgruntled customers.
The new policy was supposed to begin Jan. 1, but officials delayed it after the uproar.
Many who are critical of the compact arrangement have said they believe some kind of formula based on use would be much more fair.
Asked if he thinks the ultimate solution will involve something other than assessed value, Osborne said, “Most definitely.”
The current formula sends the wrong message, Henke said.
“What we’re saying is, have a dilapidated building and you get a break. Have a nice building and we’ll penalize you. It’s a very bad message,” Henke said.