Several private business owners in Elkhart County who buy their water from the city of Elkhart got a nasty surprise about two weeks ago. Owners say that on December 11, they received a letter from the city of Elkhart saying that they had until December 31 to comply with a compact fee increase. Owners said the letter warned that their water would be shut off on January 1 if they did not pay the fee by that time.
Previously, business owners who were not Elkhart residents, paid a rate for water that was three times that of Elkhart residents. This was to compensate for the fact that county residents do not pay Elkhart city taxes. An ordinance recently passed by the city council, however, increased the fee to be proportionate to a business's assessed value.
Third District Council Member David Henke said that when the city council passed the ordinance, they had "assumed that the mayor's office had done its homework" about the effects of such a hike. Henke said he thinks the increase is unfair to county business owners and is in favor of revisiting the issue.
"I don't think this is a good way to communicate with our commercial property owners. I think this is something that we have to work out if the city needs more dollars," said Henke.
Dozens of county business owners have been emailing and calling city representatives, including Henke, to voice their concerns. One business even said the increase would force it to leave Elkhart.
"We have attempted to contact the city to establish what exactly will happen if we fail to agree to their completely unreasonable 15-year contract and if they will, indeed, as they threaten, cut us off on January 1, 2013. If this does occur, we will have no choice but to lay-off all employees from our operation in Elkhart and support our customers out of our existing additional 11 warehouses around the country," said Martin Street, President and CEO of Stag-Parkway, Inc., an Atlanta-based company that employees approximately 50 people in the city of Elkhart.
Business owners were upset that they were given less than 30 days to comply with the fee increase.
The mayor's office said the formula was put in place in order to make all contracts uniform within the city. Arvis Dawson, executive assistant to the mayor of Elkhart, said a committee decided to come up with the formula so that everyone would know in advance what the rate was going to be even when administrations changed.
"The last thing we want to do is put anybody out of business and put a burden on anyone with regard to possibly having to lay off workers, so that's why the mayor has put a committee together to possibly revisit that and to meet with those commercial users as necessary," said Dawson.
The mayor's office has extended the payment deadline to March 1 for county business in order to give businesses time to be notified and owners time to voice their concerns. Dawson said the committee would be looking at all options and factors during this time period and would be taking into consideration issues such as water usage and fairness to city businesses owned by residents. Dawson said any business owners with questions should contact the mayor's office.