ELKHART — Mayor Dick Moore on Wednesday, April 10, doubled down on two fronts in the on-going commercial sewer compact dispute.
Less than a day after the Indiana House of Representatives voted to support an amendment aimed at giving commercial customers outside of the city an opportunity to appeal sewer fee hikes, Moore announced an immediate moratorium on any new sewer and water connections outside of the city.
Moore said the move is an attempt for state lawmakers to rethink support for an amendment authored by State Rep. Tim Wesco, R-Osceola.
The amendment, which would be less constraining on municipalities compared with other ideas that were considered, was attached to Senate Bill 385.
Wesco described the amendment passed by the House as a “balanced approach” toward protecting customers outside of the city that he says are being unfairly “coerced” into paying much higher fees.
But Moore issued a terse assessment in announcing the moratorium and said he and his legal staff would review their options in case the legislation becomes law.
“The people of the city of Elkhart hope that reasonable legislators will stop this bill in its current form,” Moore said in a prepared statement. “We encourage the local representatives to respond to our pleas on behalf of the city.” He criticized Wesco and Rep. Tim Neese, R-Elkhart, for supporting the measure.
Earlier this month, Moore accused Wesco of “meddling” in the affairs of the city. On Wednesday, Moore said Wesco had failed to meet with the city administration to “fully comprehend the issue.”
However, Wesco said late Wednesday night that he had met with a city attorney, which he said helped result in the compromise approach.
The amendment adopted by the House simply allows for appeal and would not affect standing agreements, Wesco said.
He said he was disappointed to learn of the moratorium.
“Based on the response with the mayor today, I don’t think he’s interested in really pursuing any compromise, but I do hold out hope that city council will continue to address this issue,” Wesco said.
Moore said the moratorium will remain until other viable options are in place.
The amended bill will now either be voted on by the full Senate or a conference committee, Wesco said.
The new city policy shifts 75 businesses from the old traditional sewer service agreements in which the businesses have paid 300 percent of what they would pay for usage if located inside the city limits.
The policy has been heavily criticized by several council members and has drawn attention from Elkhart County officials and some state lawmakers. It relies on a formula based on assessed property values instead of usage.
Businesses contend their fees could rise between 500 and 1,200 percent in many cases, depending on the value of their property.
Another 63 businesses outside of the city have been on the compact plan for years. The city ordinance passed last November is an attempt to level the playing field by placing all companies on the same policy.
In a related matter, Moore informed council members Wednesday that he will not consider any further compromises to the controversial policy beyond what he has suggested.
That statement came before a two-and-a-half hour meeting Wednesday night in which council listened to concerns from business owners.
Moore’s statement was spurred by council members who asked if he would consider new changes to the policy.
Moore has already offered two compromises in an effort to tamp criticism. His phase-in of fees over a two-year period was approved last month by the city council.
He also recently proposed reducing the assessed value formula from 75 percent to 50 percent. That plan has not yet been formally submitted to the city council for consideration. It would also change the policy name from “compact” to PILOT, which is short for “payment in lieu of taxes.”
The email from Moore to council members reads in part: “The administration’s decision is that we have offered our last compromise. We are unwavering in our decision because we feel it is in the best interest of the people of Elkhart.”
Commercial customers outside of the city have complained that the policy based on assessed value would cause fees to skyrocket. Some of them have called it a “money grab” by the city and took their concerns to Wesco and other state lawmakers.
Some business owners and city council members contend the fee should be based on usage, but Moore has said changes in state law now prohibit that option.
More than 15 people spoke during Wednesday’s council meeting and all voiced objections to the existing policy. Councilman David Henke said he would like to strike some kind of compromise based on usage and criticized the mayor’s decision to oppose further changes and the fact that Moore choose not to attend Wednesday’s meeting.
“That makes it hard to work with him,” Henke said.
Businessman Steve Schemenauer urged the the council to take action on its own.
A spokesman for Pro Air said the existing policy could stand in the way of the company’s expansion plans.
Council president Ron Troyer scheduled the meeting as a fact-finding session so council would have a better understanding of the issues when it begins deliberating Moore’s 50 percent PILOT proposal.
Moore’s newest plan will likely be assigned to a committee next week.