GOSHEN — Elkhart County will continue to deny requests for permits that would allow Elkhart city utility workers to cut off sewer service to residents in Valley View Hills Subdivision.
The dispute began about two weeks ago when the county decided to intervene on behalf of Valley View residents who live outside of the city and have refused to sign a new sewer agreement with the city. The difference of opinion was further punctuated when Sheriff Bradley Rogers camped out in the neighborhood and encouraged residents to call 9-1-1 if city crews attempted to cut off service.
The Elkhart County commissioners sent a letter Monday, April 1, to Elkhart mayor Dick Moore and the city council to suggest alternative ways to deal with homeowners. The city had plans to disconnect their sewer hookups, but the commissioners wrote an initial letter to city leaders in March explaining that severing sewer lines would create an immediate health hazard for residents.
“If the property owners will not comply with the ordinance requirements or agreements, we would encourage the city to take them to court to enforce compliance or file and foreclose on sewer liens,” the county’s April 1 letter states. “Either would be a better approach than disconnection.”
As a last resort, the county suggests obtaining a court order if the city still believes that disconnection is necessary.
“The county would comply with a court order, if issued, that would require the granting of a utility permit to work in the county right of way,” the letter reads. “We do not believe, however, that the county can endorse the granting of a utility permit where it could be viewed to have approved or authorized the work and allowed the creation of an immediate and unnecessary public health hazard.”
Terry Rodino, commissioners president, reiterated the county’s stance when Valley View resident Jon Nelson spoke at Monday’s commissioners’ meeting.
“In no way do we want to get in the middle of what the mayor wants to do with you folks,” Rodino told Nelson. “We understand where you’re at, but that’s not our battle, so the bottom line is the stance we’re taking is strictly a severe health issue that could be created.”
Moore, speaking at the Elkhart Rotary Club Monday, acknowledged receiving the letter, but attempted to smooth over what appears to be a new source of friction between the city and county.
Last week, Moore expressed strong disappointment over intervention by the county.
“The county and city (are) not fighting.” Moore said. “Basically, the county and city are working together.”
Moore said Valley View’s main concern is annexation and that the city currently does not want to annex the subdivision.
Valley View homeowners are among a group of residential customers who are being shifted over to the compact fee after being on a sewer service agreement for years. For many, the traditional agreement required customers to pay three times the amount city residents pay.
Under the compact arrangement, customers would pay a flat $50 fee plus the city rate for usage. With upcoming rate hikes, it is widely believed that most customers would pay less under the compact arrangement.
As of Thursday, March 28, the city said the number of holdouts in Valley View was down to 10. The subdivision has around 90 lots.
Those who have resisted signing have done so over concerns with a provision that would prevent residents from fighting any future plans the city might have for annexation. That provision, though, is common in many municipalities.
In a letter to the county commissioners, Nelson said he is not opposed to a flat fee, but $50 is too high. Instead, he said, $30 would be more reasonable. He also mentioned that he would not want his property to be annexed into the city.
County commissioner Mike Yoder, however, said if he lived in the area, he would sign the compact agreement.
“Actually, I would probably turn this around, and I would try and force that mayor to annex me because I would get better services, and nothing against our county sheriff’s department, but we cannot offer the police response time that the city can,” he said.
In addition, Yoder said, the subdivision residents would gain city council representation.
“I would want a chance to vote on the city council personally, and it would get you that, and it would get you garbage pickup and some other things, so it’s a good time for everybody to think through this,” Yoder said. “I hope you come to some agreement between the $30 and $50. I don’t have a lot of hope that the mayor is going to move from that $50. I don’t think he will, but he may.”