ELKHART — It might not be an election year, but yard signs are popping up around the city of Elkhart and they have a decidedly political feel.
Members of a business coalition who are upset with Mayor Dick Moore and the handling of the compact fee issue have initiated a public campaign that involves 300 yard signs and more than 400 fliers. Six large banners are planned for C.R. 17 where some of the affected businesses are located.
Signs are popping up to the north, south and east of the city.
Businesses located outside of the city are upset with Elkhart’s existing commercial compact policy that some call a “money grab” which they say will cause their sewer fees to skyrocket.
The signs have various themes: “$40,000 for a business to flush toilets?” and “Mayor Moore’s Elkhart closed for business.”
The group has a website, too — www.stopmoore.com — that outlines many of their concerns. The website includes a phone number for Moore and email addresses for city council members.
The campaign is a way to bring attention to what organizers consider to be Moore’s “ill-conceived” support of the compact policy, said Steven Schemenaur, an outspoken leader of the group who is an owner of Sherwood Industries on Leer Drive north of Elkhart.
“He is chasing business and jobs away from our community by imposing huge fees upon business, many of whom have not fully recovered from the recession,” Schemenaur said.
Furthermore, the group is questioning the city’s residential compact policy and supporting Valley View Hills subdivision residents who have expressed anger over similar issues.
Numerous professional and handmade signs have been posted near Valley View at Benham Avenue and Mishawaka Road south of the city.
As of earlier this week, 12 out of about 90 households in Valley View have still refused to sign the residential compact agreement that was supposed to take effect Jan. 1.
While the group is lending its support to Valley View, the task force is not looking at the residential compact issue and city officials have resisted multiple efforts to even discuss that aspect.
Moore, who has declined to discuss the compact dispute in recent weeks, acknowledged the group’s right to voice their concerns.
“We do not stand in the way of and certainly recognize the right of peaceful demonstration in any form,” Moore said in a written statement. “As long as the signs meet our ordinance requirements, it will be fine.”
Otherwise, Moore said his administration will await a recommendation from the task force and action by city council.
Kyle Hannon, president of the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce, has sided with the businesses on some of the compact issues but questioned whether such an aggressive campaign will pay dividends in the long run.
“I’ve been involved in government relations for 25 years and that’s not usually the tactic I would recommend,” Hannon said. “If you make the other side mad, they’re less likely to agree with you later.”
City councilman Brian Dickerson said he heard rumors of the campaign, but had not seen any signs as of Friday afternoon, May 17.
He said he hopes the campaign remains respectful and said he understands the business owners’ frustration.
“They have waited a significant period now and it’s not just the people who are on the compact fees. It’s developers, it’s real estate agents,” Dickerson said. “It’s stopping business in its tracks and we need to get it resolved as soon as possible.”
Councilman David Henke is also sympathetic to the cause and said Moore is under-valuing the businesses and the potential impact.
“Since they’re county people voicing a city problem, they’re limited on where they can voice it,” Henke said. “Whether I agree with the signs or not, it doesn’t really matter. I can understand they’re trying to get a voice.”
The dispute started late last year when council passed a new sewer policy for commercial customers outside of the city. The ordinance shifts 75 companies to the compact policy that another 63 companies have been on for years. The compact policy is based on the customer’s assessed value and businesses contend their sewer bills will rise dramatically.
The council has since considered several changes, including two ideas proposed by Moore.
However, city officials took a step back last month after Moore worked out a deal with state lawmakers who threatened to approve legislation that would have potentially clamped down on the city’s policy. As part of that settlement, Moore agreed to create a task force to study the issue.
Businesses — along with Dickerson and Henke — have been critical of the task force.
Moore has declined to identify members of the task force and urged them to meet privately as they begin work on a possible compromise.
Henke and Dickerson have both said they think council should deal with the issue directly.
Members of the task force met Wednesday in private despite warnings from a representative of the state public access counselor’s office who said the group had not properly given public notice. She also said the meetings need to be open to the public.