ELKHART — Legislation in the Indiana General Assembly would prevent cities from cutting off sewer service for a two-year period to customers outside of the city who have failed to sign new agreements.
If passed into law, it could affect a less than a dozen Elkhart sewer customers, including some in Valley View subdivision who have refused to sign a new sewer agreement.
Senate Bill 53, authored by Sen. Joe Zakas, whose district includes northern Elkhart, would also set up an opportunity for arbitration for customers outside of the city who are facing new agreements with a municipality.
While the main intent of the legislation is to protect landlords from tenants who don’t pay sewer bills, an amendment was added by David Wolkins, R-Winona Lake, that would prevent cities from disconnecting service and would also establish an opportunity for arbitration.
The amendment would prevent municipalities from ceasing service for two years after the expiration of a contract as long as customers continue to make payments outlined under the expired agreement. That arrangement would continue until a new agreement is reached or the property is annexed. The bill would also provide a third option for arbitration.
Wolkins said Thursday that Elkhart’s struggles to establish a new sewer policy last year helped spur his interest in the proposal.
A year-long dispute ended late last year when Moore and the city council agreed to phase out the long-standing compact fee policy and switch to a rate based on a study. The phase-out is under way.
Even though Wolkins said he knows much of Elkhart’s compact fee policy is in the midst of being resolved, he said he views the amendment as a safeguard.
“I felt there needed to be something in place that will bring this to an end at some point,” Wolkins said. “I want some kind of resolution up there. I’ve been very frustrated at all the ways Mayor Moore has attempted to gouge people and attempted to bully people.”
Moore brought up the issue a week ago, during a Third House meeting in Elkhart, saying it would be unfair to city customers to allow others outside of the city to be able to seek arbitration.
Moore said Saturday that the legislation would result in a loss of control from the city’s standpoint and that the amendment “obviously makes it an anti-municipality bill.”
“It is a direct attack on the people who live and own and operate a business or industrial unit in our cities across the state,” he said.
Wolkins said he did not brief Zakas prior to adding the amendment.
Zakas said last week the amendment caught him off guard and that he needed to look into the issue more closely.
Zakas could not be reached for comment Friday.
Rep. Tim Neese, who has announced plans to run for mayor of Elkhart, voted for Wolkins’ amendment in the House Environmental Affairs Committee. Neese said the opportunity for binding arbitration is a key feature to the bill because it allows customers a less expensive route to appeal the rate rather than go to court.
While Elkhart’s dispute is all but resolved, Neese said the bill will help protect customers in other communities.
The House voted 76-19 to approve the latest version. In addition to Neese and Culver, another area lawmaker, Rep. Tim Wesco, voted for it.
Wolkins said he expects the bill to go back to the Senate on Monday. If Zakas is content with the existing version, it would go to the governor, who could sign it into law.
If Zakas wants to make changes, it will go to a conference committee, where details would be worked out, Wolkins said.
Moore faced criticism last year over a sewer plan adopted at the end of 2012. He and city council eventually approved a revamped version that significantly changed how the city charges commercial customers.
At the same time, the city has had an ongoing dispute with some residential customers, including a handful in Valley View who have refused to sign the new agreement but have continued to receive service for more than a year.
While much of the sewer issue has been resolved, Wolkins added, “If those poor individuals out in the subdivision don’t come to an agreement, it could be necessary.”
The city attempted to disconnect service to about two dozen holdouts last summer, but ran into opposition -- temporarily -- from Elkhart County officials, who eventually backed off and admitted the city has a right to cease service.
The city administration recently hired a company that specializes in plugging underground sewer lines without having to dig up the pipe.
City officials, through the media and letters, have urged the residents to sign the new agreement.
Moore said the city's outlook on that issue is now rather simple.
"Enough announcements have been made. Enough letters have been written. There will be no further communication and one day the system won't work at the residential units that do not sign the agreement and make their monthly payment," Moore said.
Valley View residents have been involved in a protracted dispute over sewer service and some argue they have been over-charged for years.
The 2012 agreement set a new residential rate at $50 per month on top of regular sewer charges. Revisions made in 2013 cut that to $35.