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Elkhart officials mull new methods to cut sewer service as rate flap lingers

Elkhart officials are looking into alternative means to sever sewer service, part of the flap with a group of sewer customers who won't agree to new service terms.
Posted on Dec. 18, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.

ELKHART — Officials from the city of Elkhart are looking into alternative means to sever sewer service to individual customers, a response to the ongoing flap involving a handful of customers who haven’t agreed to new sewer service terms.

Elkhart city officials approved a new rate plan for sewer customers living outside the city limits last month, after about a year of deliberations. The earlier rate plan raised the hackles of many sewer customers outside Elkhart — who pay more than customers inside the city — and some refused to agree to its terms, prompting the city to warn them that their service would potentially be cut.

The new rate plan of Nov. 18 reduces the fee residential customers outside Elkhart pay, and some of the holdouts have since agreed to it. Still, not everyone’s on board — City Engineer Mike Machlan, also the head of the Elkhart Board of Public Works — reported seven residential holdouts on Tuesday, Dec. 17.

Accordingly, the board of public works on Tuesday formally decided to seek out bids on costs and means of severing sewer service to customers like the holdouts. Machlan, speaking after Tuesday’s meeting, said the initiative doesn’t stem only from the current pool of holdouts. It also aims to address similar situations in the future.

If push comes to shove, city officials have contemplated stopping sewer service to the holdout customers by digging down to the laterals connected to individual homes, severing them and capping them. Per the plan approved Tuesday, city officials will seek bids from the private sector on the cost of doing that sort of disconnection as well as what Machlan described as no-dig disconnections.

Utilizing no-dig disconnections, crews would send robots into the sewer system and the machines would travel to the lateral connection points of holdout customers, installing blocking devices. Using such a method, the city would bypass the need to get excavation permits from the Elkhart County Highway Department to dig to the laterals so they could be severed.

Last March, Elkhart County officials said they wouldn’t provide the city with such permits , worried that halting sewer service would pose a health hazard. The holdout sewer customers, because they live outside the city, reside along county-maintained roadways, hence the need for permits from the county to dig.

The sewer rate agreement approved Nov. 18 requires residential customers outside Elkhart to pay a flat $35 fee on top of their normal sewer bill, down from $50 outlined in the previous ordinance. Customers outside Elkhart pay more, in part, to offset the fact that they don’t pay city property taxes.

Machlan offered no new specifics on the timeline of severing of sewer service, if such action is to take place. The holdouts have been informed “there would be no more notification and that disconnects will be done when our crews are available,” Machlan said in an email Tuesday. Still, the bids from companies that can block sewer lines aren’t due until Jan. 7, and a provider probably wouldn’t be selected until after that.

Machlan said the cost of blocking a sewer line via the no-dig method would potentially be cheaper than physically digging down to a lateral and severing it. It would potentially cost more, though, to reverse action taken via the no-dig technique, he said.

Truth reporter Dan Spalding contributed to this story


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