ELKHART — Mayor Dick Moore’s desire to maintain a utility moratorium appears to have created a possible stumbling block on two fronts in the ongoing commercial compact controversy.
Rep. Tim Wesco said Saturday, April 20, that he was leaning toward removing an amendment in a state legislative bill that has angered Moore and led the mayor to halt all new connections to sewer and water outside of city limits.
But Wesco, R-Osceola, said his outlook changed overnight when he learned Moore intends to maintain the moratorium even if the amendment is pulled from a state Senate bill.
“I have no intent to remove the amendment if the mayor’s intent is to keep the moratorium,” Wesco said during a Third House legislative meeting at the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce Saturday.
Wesco said he believed lawmakers involved in discussions leading up to Moore’s offer thought the moratorium would disappear if the amendment was removed. “That was everyone’s understanding,” he said.
Moore defended his discussions with Wesco Saturday afternoon.
“We didn’t fool him. I had a conversation with him and moratorium never came up,” Moore said.
Moore gave no hint that he would rescind the moratorium, saying he will move forward with his plan.
Moore announced on Friday that he would create a task force to come up with a new solution to the compact dispute if the legislature would remove language in a bill that would expand the definition of sewer fees and charges that could be appealed to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.
Moore said such an amendment encroaches on the city’s right to charge for utility services.
Wesco became involved at the request of businesses outside of Elkhart city limits that are upset with the new city policy, which Wesco said would lead to “astronomical” increases in fees.
Moore said he wants to keep the moratorium in place until the task force comes up with a solution.
Whether the amendment is removed could be decided Monday, when a conference committee consisting of four legislators meets in Indianapolis to finalize Senate Bill 385.
Wesco stressed that he doesn’t have sole control of the amendment’s fate.
Asked if he would be agreeable to seek the amendment’s removal if Moore rescinded his moratorium, Wesco said he and other lawmakers would continue to study the situation.
An ongoing moratorium is also cause for concern with some city council members.
Republican city council members David Henke and Mary Olson attended Saturday’s meeting, and both renewed their opposition to the moratorium, which they consider a “job killer.”
Henke asked Wesco to work to keep the amendment in the legislation if Moore maintains the moratorium.
Under Moore’s plan, the 75 companies being shifted to compact fees would pay the city rate for the next year as the city council comes up with a solution.
Henke said that would require approval of city council.
“We will have to repeal the original ordinance to make that happen,” Henke said.
Henke said cooperation from himself and others on council might be harder to achieve as long as the moratorium is in place.
He brushed aside the need for a task force.
“We just need to sit down, look at what revenues are needed and what is fair to charge,” Henke said.
Establishment of a task force would represent a new starting point even though three proposals have recently surfaced.
With plans for a task force, Moore said he’s willing to pull his current plan that would reduce from 75 percent to 50 percent the amount of assessed value used to calculate fees for commercial customers outside of the city.
A coalition of businesses has proposed they pay a 15 percent surcharge above usage. Henke has suggested something similar, but with a slightly higher percentage.
The Elkhart chamber has proposed the city adopt a flat fee not based on assessed value and urges the city to embrace an aggressive annexation policy.
Chamber President Kyle Hannon said Elkhart’s circumstances are unique because almost all other municipalities in Indiana annex commercial properties after providing sewer and water.
Elkhart has been very slow to annex property.
“Most communities don’t do it this way,” he said. “If they extend the sewers, they extend the city limits as well.”
Wesco has a different outlook on the issue. He said lawmakers need to look at the statewide impact of municipalities charging large fees to customers outside of the city limits.
“If the legislature doesn’t address this, this is a problem that will continue to pop up all over the state,” he said.
Moore’s task force represents his third attempt at compromise. In addition to the 50 percent plan, he proposed a two-year phase-in that was adopted.