Council appointees hope task force will move quickly

City council members Brian Thomas and Tonda Hines confirmed they will serve on the compact fee task force.
Posted on May 4, 2013 at 1:00 a.m.

ELKHART — Two city council representatives appointed to the sewer compact fee task force said Friday, May 3, that they hope a recommendation on the compact fee dispute can be made quickly.

Republican Brian Thomas and Democrat Tonda Hines confirmed Friday they had agreed to participate on the task force that mayor Dick Moore hopes will begin to meet by mid May.

The task force is the latest attempt by Moore to find a resolution to the sewer compact fee dispute that began in December after numerous businesses outside of the city balked at being shifted from the sewer service agreement to the significantly more expensive compact fee payment plan.

Prior to the establishment of the task force, Moore had sought twice to quell the dispute with different compromise efforts.

The use of a task force surfaced in an agreement between Moore and state lawmakers who were supporting state legislation that would have clamped down on the existing compact fee policy.

City council has heard extended public comment from businesses in recent months, including several hours last month.

Thomas and Hines both said they’ve heard enough public comment on the issue.

“I think we’ve had ample input,” Hines said.

Thomas said he’d like to see the task force wrap up its work in one or two meetings.

“I’m glad we’re moving forward, but we’re moving awfully slowly,” he said.

The task force includes representatives of the city, county and businesses, plus three people from the city utility department.

Earlier this week, Moore said they had seated eight people to the panel, but did not identify the participants.

Moore was unavailable for comment Friday, and his assistant, Arvis Dawson, declined to answer questions about the task force, including whether the meetings would be open to the public.

Dawson said the mayor’s office would likely not comment further on the topic until the task force convenes.

Moore has said he wants the new policy to take affect in April of 2014.

Meanwhile, concerns about the task force may surface Monday when city council meets.

Republican city councilman David Henke and several business owners have questioned both the merits and makeup of the panel.

Henke said he thinks council should have the responsibility of finding a solution.

Henke thinks the panel — apparently selected by Moore — could be weighted with people who support the mayor’s position.

In addition to two city council members, the panel will include two representatives of businesses outside of the city; two representatives from businesses inside the city; two area land developers; two Elkhart County elected officials; two city residents; a state representative; and three members of the city’s utility office.

Councilman Dave Osborne, a Democrat, said he’s heard complaints about the task force and expressed dismay at what feels like a constant flow of second guessing.

“I don’t know why everybody is up in arms,” Osborne said. “Why can’t they let this committee do its job and let it make a recommendation?”

He said he believes Moore has come to the realization that any solution will likely result in a reduction in revenues to the city. He said he thinks some businesses continue to express fear of exorbitant rates while knowing something more acceptable is likely to evolve.

“It’s all about posturing,” he said.

“I’m getting really frustrated with the whole thing,” Osborne said.

Hines said she has not heard complaints about the task force, but that there is a sense of urgency in resolving the issue.

Several council members said they believe the task force ultimately will face a simple question: Continue to use assessed value as part of the formula or adopt an alternative that uses a flat fee or something based on usage.

Thomas said he’s opposed to using assessed value.

Hines said she is leaning toward supporting a plan based on assessed value, but something much less than the existing 75 percent formula.

Hines also said she’ll enter the meetings with an open mind.

Moore agreed to establish a task force as part of an agreement with state lawmakers who agreed last week to remove language from a bill that would have expanded the definition of what could be appealed to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.

As part of the agreement, lawmakers said they would study whether state-wide legislation is needed to prevent municipalities from charging significantly higher fees for customers outside of the city — a practice the city of Elkhart has done for years.

Action sought by Moore and approved by council last year expanded the use of sewer compact fees from 63 companies that have been on it for years to 75 more businesses.

The expired sewer service agreements charged 300 percent of what customers would pay inside the city. The compact fee relies on assessed value.

Earlier this week, Moore and council president Ron Troyer — in a joint statement — asked for patience as the task force begins its work.

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