ELKHART — Unless something changes quickly, it appears Elkhart’s compact sewer dispute will likely surpass the one-year anniversary.
And while the council action on the controversy seems to have slowed, the business coalition that strongly opposes the existing compact sewer policy is turning up the heat with a fresh threat of a lawsuit and new yard signs depicting Mayor Dick Moore as a bully.
Moore’s newest sewer proposal, submitted to the council on Sept. 23, probably won’t receive a hearing from a council committee until mid-November, according to the council president Ron Troyer.
Troyer said Monday he would work this week on scheduling a hearing on Moore’s latest plan aimed at ending the standoff that began Nov. 19, 2012, when the council approved a sewer ordinance that incensed businesses, caught the attention of state lawmakers and sharply divided the city council.
Troyer said he’s working to accommodate the schedules of several council members and believes a meeting will happen within a few weeks. That means if the measure gains support, the council will not likely vote on it until late November or early December.
Troyer also said he’s seeking legal advice from an attorney on whether Moore’s latest proposal is significantly different from the one council voted down earlier this year.
Troyer and other Republicans have expressed concern that passage of an ordinance similar to one that was recently defeated might violate state law.
Moore said he had talked with Troyer several times recently and the concern about similarities in the ordinances had not come up.
Moore’s current proposal would phase out compact fees within a few years. The plan killed by the council would have reduced the compact fee by half.
Democrat councilman Dave Osborne scoffed at the concern over similarities.
“There’s no question they are significantly different,” Osborne said.
At the same time, Osborne said he’s not overly concerned that efforts to resolve the dispute have slowed and said budget discussions took precedent in recent weeks.
Moore said he believes waiting until mid-November is too long and said he hopes to talk with Troyer about it. He said he’d like to see the council address the issue when it meets Nov. 4.
In March, the council passed a measure that phases in the current policy for about 75 new commercial customers who shifted to the compact policy under the ordinance adopted last year. The phase-in was viewed as a stop-gap effort until a new policy could be devised.
On Wednesday, Moore issued a warning that “failure to resolve this issue in a timely fashion gives the city no other option than to invoice those companies for one third of the 75 percent fee, retroactive back to Jan. 1, 2013.”
Meanwhile, a new threat of a looming lawsuit and new yard signs surfaced in recent days.
The coalition, now formally known as Elkhart Citizens for Fair Sewer Rates, issued a statement Monday, saying the group is moving closer to filing a suit that would block the existing compact policy they claim is “unfair and illegal.”
Compact fees are an additional charge added to sewer bills for customers outside of the city. The fee is based on a formula that uses assessed property value. Businesses and Republicans on the council are demanding the city switch to a surcharge based on usage.
The traditional compact policy uses 75 percent of assessed value in its formula for monthly charges. Moore’s current proposal reduces the formula to 35 percent and then phases it down for several years before switching to a surcharge in 2018.
The group has “engaged legal counsel and is preparing to sue the City of Elkhart in the coming weeks over Mayor Moore’s ever-changing sewer tax proposal,” the statement said.
“It’s unfortunate that the Mayor and certain members of the council have dragged this out for so long and still refuse to offer a fair compromise,” local business owner Rocky Enfield said in a prepared statement. “It’s bad for the city, it’s bad for the county, and it’s bad for every resident of Elkhart. It’s time to get this resolved, one way or another.”
The coalition, which began a public campaign this summer with yard signs, posted new signs Friday that call for the inclusion of Valley View subdivision in the city’s annexation plans.
While the group is chiefly concerned about the commercial compact policy, it has sided with Valley View residents who receive city sewer service and have been on a residential compact policy for decades.
Valley View residents have complained about the policy for years and were displeased with the revised residential compact policy that charges $50 in addition to the monthly usage fee.
Officials with the city and Elkhart County who studied the change in policy contend most residents will pay less under the new plan. Valley View residents dispute that claim and some have demanded the city repay overcharges dating back over years.
Moore’s annexation plan focuses on commercial property, but includes some residential areas that would be otherwise surrounded by the city.
Moore has said annexing Valley View is not a priority, but some Republicans and Democrats have said they think Valley View should be annexed.
Moore declined comment on the yard signs.
As for the threat of a lawsuit, Moore said if they take legal action, “We will face that challenge with the confidence that state law is on our side. A threat of a lawsuit against the city and its utilities will not dictate local public policy. What is in the best interest of the city will drive our policy decisions.”