GOSHEN — Complaints about roadside refuse are starting to pile up, threatening to trash the good name of Elkhart County, said elected officials at an intergovernmental forum Tuesday.
Representatives from the county, a few towns, some solid waste management companies and law enforcement put their heads together to find ways to discourage what they said is a bigger magnet for controversy than the proposed immigrant detention center that reared its head earlier this year. Nearly everyone, including several audience members, had a story about how much trash they've seen strewn by the road, whether it's from an individual or from a company's hauler, and just as many ideas were floated to address it.
"We all pretty much know we have a problem," observed Elkhart County Commissioner Mike Yoder, who presided over the meeting. "It's a problem that's causing good Christians to swear when they call in to leave a complaint."
It's also a problem that's earning Elkhart County a bad reputation, said Indiana Sen. Blake Doriot.
"I've heard comments downstate that you guys build a lot of things, but you never throw anything away," he remarked. "It's not a good image."
'Trash breeds trash'
Yoder said he sees mostly waste from RV manufacturers, and that when people see some industrial packaging already littering the road, they don't think twice about throwing their soda cup out the window. He shared a sentiment from one caller, who said providing jobs and investing in the county doesn't give any company the right to trash the community.
"When people see that, it lowers their expectations," he said. "Trash breeds trash. It seems like whenever we clean the road on Saturday, it's trashed again by Tuesday. It used to stay clean for a few weeks."
Doriot advocated for making it painful enough to litter that offenders will think twice. Yoder made a similar argument, sharing a story about how he threatened to dock his farm workers' pay when the blue rubber gloves they used for handling dairy cows were getting scattered around, and remarking on the need to find a "blue glove-type fine" for Elkhart County.
The problem with levying fines is that you have to be in the right place at the right time to catch litterers in the act, said Elkhart County Prosecutor Vicki Becker. Current law also requires that the offender act with intent or recklessness — it's not enough to warrant a ticket if some pieces of trash escape an otherwise secure load.
"We have a hard enough time getting people to testify in a murder, let alone to come testify in a littering case," she said.
She noted that most of the tickets that are handed out are the result of someone doing something like flicking a cigarette out the window when a cop is driving right behind them. She said cases often go into diversion, but that hopefully $50 out of pocket is enough to make them reconsider next time.
"Give us some ordinances with teeth," asked Capt. Jeff Siegel with the Elkhart County Sheriff's Department.
Much of the discussion also centered on ways to get the message out, whether it's a sign every mile announcing the fine for littering, a hotline to call to report litterers or an advertising campaign urging people to take pride in where they live and keep it clean.
County Commissioner Suzie Weirick said the committee for the Little Big Ideas grant, which awards up to $1,000 for community projects, has talked about devoting one month to proposals for reducing trash. But she also acknowledged that it's a countywide issue bigger than a small grant program.
Discussion also turned to ways to address the trash that's already there, from holding neighborhood cleanups to having work release crews do the job.
One woman in the audience shared her frustration with trying to get people to pitch in, and suggested fining property owners for not cleaning up trash in their yards even if it's not their own.
As for community service crews, county Transportation Manager Jeff Taylor said the program has been successful in the past but that two positions for crew leaders have gone unfilled for the past six months. He said they hope to offer someone one of the jobs soon.
"But we really, really shouldn't have to pick up so much trash to begin with," Weirick added.