ELKHART — The candidates for Elkhart mayor were asked on Wednesday just how they would tackle one of local government’s newer issues if they are elected this November.
In a “mayoral conversation” hosted by Wellfield Botanic Gardens in the Sound of the Environment event series, Republican candidate Dave Miller and Democratic candidate Rod Roberson answered questions on how they would help the City of Elkhart address climate change.
“Our environment, our climate, sustainability is critically important to all of us,” said moderator Melissa Kinsey, environmental educator at Wellfield.
Yet, those are areas that Miller and Roberson have not been asked to address, she said.
“In all the debates that I’ve attended, I noticed that there has never been a question focused on their platform for sustainability, and that’s what really drove us to invite them today,” Kinsey said.
Climate change is likely to have already affected Elkhart, which has seen extreme rain and flooding in recent years, putting the local government to the test. So how would the candidates prepare for and deal with the future?
“We would probably be arrogant not to make sure that we’re planning for those issues,” Roberson said. “We’ve had families that have literally been put out of homes.”
He suggested building flood levees in the floodplains that are most likely to be affected when the rivers rise.
Miller said Elkhart has some old infrastructure, including parts of the sewer that dates back more than 100 years. Those sewers combine rain with sewage and tend to overflow into the St. Joseph and Elkhart rivers during heavy rainfall, contaminating the environment.
Elkhart, and other cities that have similar systems, are required by the federal government to make improvements, and Miller suggested that it is time for the city to take another step.
“We need to build another 1.5 million-or-so gallon tank in order to capture the water before it runs into the water as pollutants,” Miller said.
Such a tank was taken into use in Elkhart in 2010. It stores the water until the sewage treatment plant has capacity to treat it before releasing it to the waterways.
Though Elkhart cannot hinder climate change on its own, Roberson said the city should be responsible for less greenhouse gas emission.
“AMBS is looking at doubling their solar panels on top of their facilities, and I happen to be on the board of AMBS and I applaud it,” Roberson said.
But the government itself should make improvements as well, according to the Democrat.
“Hopefully we could reduce some of our dependence, as a city, especially with our buildings that we currently have on the power grid,” he said.
Individuals should make sacrifices as well, considering whether they need to drive a car to work or fly on vacation, he said.
Miller said he is an early adapter of new technologies, and that would be reflected in his administration.
“If there is something that we can do that will be better, smarter, more efficient, more cost-effective for all of our tax dollars, it would be employed here or at least we would look at it pretty carefully,” he said.
But it is important to analyze the cost-benefit, the Republican believes. He said that school buses, which he drove for Concord Community Schools until recently, cost an additional $15,000 each because of a system that limits emissions.
“Noble and worthwhile, but two busses purchased equate to about the beginning salary of one new teacher, and so there’s tradeoffs in these things that we all have to decide, what do we want more?” he said.
The conversation was held at the Elkhart Health & Aquatics Center at noon on Wednesday and had the lowest attendance of the three mayoral debates so far.
Neither candidate went into many specifics on how the city will address climate change and sustainability, but Kinsey said she was pleased with a positive conversation that showed both candidates care about the issues.
“Sometimes we have to step back from economic conversations and recognize that environmental conversations have to be at the forefront, and when we really are successful they can work hand in hand, and I think that is our city’s goal,” she said.
The next debate will be on Monday, Oct. 7, at 6:30 p.m. at the Lerner Theatre’s Crystall Ballroom.
A debate hosted by The Elkhart Public Library will take place on Oct. 14 at 7 p.m. at Iechyd Da Brewing Co. The debate will be moderated by WNDU’s Gary Sieber.
Space is limited and tickets are available by lottery only. For full details and to enter for a pair of tickets, visit www.bit.ly/EPLdebate by Wednesday, Oct. 9. The event is 21-and-over only.
The municipal election is Nov. 5.
Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter at @ReadRasmus