ELKHART — If the compact sewer dispute has been the biggest issue for the Elkhart City Council in 2013, annexation appears ready to take its place as 2014 approaches.
Actually, it already has.
With council on the verge of ending the compact policy, the city must now grapple with Mayor Dick Moore's massive annexation plan involving 16 areas — a move that is vital in ensuring a smooth financial transition away from compact fee era.
The aggressive effort by the city to expand its geographic jurisdiction is likely the biggest in recent decades and is new territory for the administration, which has turned to H.J. Umbaugh and Associates, an Indianapolis consulting firm specializing in annexation, to assist in the process.
The city is dividing the 16 areas into four groups, the first of which will be up for consideration and scrutiny within a matter of weeks.
The first group of four areas:
No. 1 — An industrial area north of the airport.
No. 2 — Remington Park, an industrial park along part of C.R. 6 east of Decio Drive.
No. 3 — An industrial and commercial stretch along C.R. 17 and south of Middlebury Street.
No. 4 — A small industrial area that includes Borg Road and Pierina Drive.
According to statistics provided by the city, the areas that make up the first phase include 61 businesses currently receiving city sewer and a total of 120 commercial customers. The four areas also include 163 other parcels, many of which may well be residential.
However, city officials are still sifting through county records, and the statistics are more complicated than they appear.
City engineer Mike Machlan said that assuming each parcel represents an individual household or business would be a mistake. Some homes or businesses include more than one parcel, while other parcels might represent vacant lots or are too small for residential or commercial construction.
The issue is just as complicated when looking at and understanding commercial properties.
Area No. 5, along C.R. 6, west of Johnson Street, is a good example. The city has identified three commercial properties, but that includes a shopping center, which has eight stores.
“There's so many variables involved in it,” said Tim Reecer, office manager for the utility department, who is coordinating much of the annexation work. “It's definitely not a black or white answer for most of it.”
City officials will determine how many homeowners are inside phase one within days.
The sequence of consideration of individual areas coincides with the number attached to each area. Some of the earlier areas will need to be annexed before others are considered because they need to be contiguous to city limits. That means No. 2 would have to happen before No. 11 and likewise with Nos. 7 and 16 and Nos. 8 and 13.
Umbaugh is preparing an assessment of the fiscal impact Moore's annexation proposal will have. Once that is finished, the city will be ready to take legal steps, beginning with the submission of an ordinance for each area to city council. Property owners will be notified and a public hearing will be scheduled.
Prior to the hearing, though, the city will hold an informational meeting for people who have questions or concerns.
In the case of phase one, council is expected to receive the ordinance Nov. 18.
Property owners will be able to learn details such as an estimated tax impact at the information meetings.
“The nice thing about this is they've have a chance to voice their concerns. It's an open process,” said Margaret Marnocha, a city attorney.
The public hearing happens at least 60 days after notice is mailed.
Council will then have several weeks to consider passage of the ordinance. The ordinance is then published and can become effective 90 days later if it is not challenged in court.
A big chunk of the 16 areas is industrial, but there are large swaths of commercial and residential in some.
Based on a tour through each of the 16 areas, it also appears that three of the areas are heavily residential.
Those include No. 10, along Toledo Road and west of C.R. 17; No. 16 near S.R. 19 south of the city; and No. 13, west of the city along Old U.S. 20.
Given the circumstances, the city will be under pressure to proceed quickly with annexation.
Council is close to a final agreement to replace the compact sewer policy in 2015 with user-based surcharge for commercial customers. Unlike compact revenues, which can be used for a wide variety of uses, money from the surcharge must be used for the utility.
With that in mind, city officials will soon be depending on increased revenues from property taxes through annexation to ensure a smooth financial transition.
To a great degree, much of the annexation now being sought is something that should have happened when the city began extending sewer lines to the commercial areas beginning as far back as 25 years ago.
Moore and his two predecessors, thought, seemed content to avoid the annexation process and collect revenues from compact fees.
The city has established an email (email@example.com) and phone number (293-2572) for anyone with questions, but officials have received little feedback so far, according to Reecer and Marnocha.
Annexation often came up during the compact dispute and some business owners expressed a willingness to be annexed.
“At the meetings I was at, people were begging, 'Go ahead — annex us,'” Marnocha said. “I don't see unhappiness here.”
Use the map below to learn about each proposed annexation. Magenta areas indicate which annexations are up for consideration first. To view the map full screen, click the square symbol in the upper right corner.