GOSHEN – Elkhart County Council postponed action on a tax abatement for an $8.6 million Winnebago expansion after hearing that Middlebury town officials were left out of the loop.

Council held a special meeting Monday to vote on tax phase-ins for land and equipment the company plans to buy to expand its C.R. 14 facility, with potential long-term plans for multiple buildings on the site. The expansion is expected to add 225 full-time jobs with an annual payroll of over $16.8 million.

The special meeting was called in order to move quickly on the project, since company representatives expressed a desire to be in the first of the new buildings by October. But council voted to table the abatement until its April 14 meeting after Middlebury Town Manager Mary Cripe and Town Councilman Chuck Teall expressed concerns they would like to see addressed first.

One of their main issues is whether the town can meet the water needs of the expanded plant, especially for fire protection, Cripe said. She couldn't verify the claim that the first phase of the expansion wouldn't require a water main extension without the update to the town's water model being finished first.

It's also an open question whether the company would be annexed in order to hook up to town utilities or whether some other agreement would be reached. They don't know how the expansion would affect other town infrastructure, like roads and traffic, either.

And they don't know how tax revenue would be affected by the phase-in, Cripe noted, which was something town officials weren't interested in doing when first approached about the project. 

"The town supports development but there are too many questions still lingering," she told council.

She added that other recent business expansions didn't request tax phase-ins. Teall said he could think of six expansions in the past three years that had to undergo annexation and noted that they typically pay for utility extension through tax increment finance district funds instead of an abatement. 

"We as a council were left out of the loop," Teall remarked. "Once we said we were not interested in a phase-in, the county deserted us."

County Councilman Tom Stump said he wasn't aware of Middlebury officials' thoughts but had assumed they were positive. He suggested passing the tax phase-in and letting Middlebury town officials reject the project if they chose, but expressed confidence that they could work it out.

"You definitely need to contact Middlebury and negotiate with them because they hold the key to the whole project, the water and sewer," Stump told company representatives at the meeting. "We need to work this out, it would not be a good thing if we missed this opportunity."

The county council was poised to move ahead on the abatement after a motion was made by Darryl Riegsecker, who questioned why Middlebury officials hadn't expressed their reservations before now and wondered if tabling the request would send the wrong message. But it ultimately was tabled, at the suggestion of Councilman Dave Foutz.

"Rather than have it on the record that we turned it down, it may serve Winnebago better if we tabled this till April," Foutz said. "I think it would serve everybody better if we came back to this after we did some communication, problem-solving and fact-finding."

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