ELKHART — Mayor Dick Moore’s administration has turned over more than 7,000 pages of documents to a city councilman concerning the utility department’s sewer service to areas outside of the city of Elkhart.
But in doing so, he’s warning that such large requests in the future might come with a price tag for city council members.
The paperwork was the result of four public records request made several weeks ago by Republican Brian Dickerson, who has questioned the utility department’s finances amid the on-going commercial sewer dispute for customers outside of the city.
He and other Republicans contend revenues from sewer charges should go to the utility. Moore prefers using compact fees that go to the Greater Elkhart Fund and are used for various purposes including trash removal and emergency expenditures.
Dickerson and other Republicans have complained that the administration has been reluctant to release financial details concerning the utilities department and have sought information through public records requests.
The request took several weeks to fulfill and was made available to Dickerson on Friday, July 19.
According to Moore, the 7,158 pages, at 10 cents a copy, would have cost $715 if a charge had been assessed. He estimated it took 12 hours and nine minutes to prepare. Based on salary and benefits, that added cost would have been $1,040.13.
The city charges 10 cents per page from the public, but normally waives the fee for council members.
The request is regarded as possibly one of the biggest in recent city history.
“When I ask for information, it’s not to bog down the administration, it’s to protect the public,” Dickerson said.
“There’s no willingness to communicate. This is an effort to make sure the public’s business is managed well and protected.”
Moore disputes suggestions that he’s not communicating and points to his attendance and interaction at city council meetings.
Dave Osborne, a Democrat city council member, said he believes the request is the largest ever made of the city.
Osborne said the request amounts to a “fishing expedition” and is part of a highly politicized outlook embraced by some Republicans.
Dickerson denied Osborne’s claim.
“I think it’s important to do the homework and look at all sides of the issue and that’s what I’m doing,” Dickerson said.
Moore said the city was willing to provide the information, but did raise the concern of costs in an email to council members announcing the paperwork was available.
Moore was asked about it afterward.
“We are considering going to the council to amend the current ordinance that outlines our charges and include at what level or number of copies council members should be charged,” Moore said in an email to The Truth.
Dickerson’s interest in understanding the utility department’s finances stems from concerns over how the city will pay for the federally mandated combined sewer overflow project, a long-term effort to reduce the amount of wastewater that flows into area rivers during peak rainfall periods.
The city is in the middle of the project and established a series of sewer rate hikes for city customers over the next few years to help cover those costs, but Dickerson and others believe that won’t be enough to cover the estimated $125 million for the CSO project.
“We have an unfunded federal mandate that is being largely ignored. We focus on short term goals when we should be looking at the whole picture,” Dickerson said.
He said he thinks the public would agree that funds generated from sewer use should go back to the utility.
Moore says shifting the revenues to the utility would cause havoc with the city budget. Dickerson, in turn, said a transition in channelling the money could be phased in over several years to help avoid a revenue crisis.
Dickerson has made several requests from the administration since he was appointed to council by a Republican caucus in January.
Moore has questioned the motives behind the numerous requests.
Neither appear to agree on much of anything.
Dickerson said he included an email address and said he thought the paperwork could have been sent electronically. Moore said he believes Dickerson knew the request would involve paper copies.
Moore said Dickerson was given an opportunity to look at records at the utility office, thereby reducing the number of copies, but he declined.
Dickerson said his daytime work schedule would not allow for that and that much of his work on council issues is done on evenings and on weekends.
The city council is expected to discuss the compact sewer issue Monday when it meets as a “committee of the whole.”
Members of the council are expected to possibly offer a recommendation on Moore’s proposed 35 percent “PILOT” plan that would continue to funnel money into the Greater Elkhart Fund, but would reduce payments by more than half.