Just shy of the one-year anniversary of the city of Elkhart's sewer dispute, officials reached an agreement Monday night. While council members agree that this was in fact a compromise, a handful of malcontent homeowners remain reluctant to sign on.
Weeks ago Mayor Dick Moore threatened to disconnect property owners from the sewer line if they did not sign onto the existing sewer compact agreement.
"For me, that's not a fear at all," said John Nelson, an outspoken representative of the Valley View neighborhood. Valley View is a residential area just a stone's throw away from city limits. For decades homeowners there have paid rates 300-percent of city rates and compact fees of $50 extra per month to tap into the pre-existing sewer lines.
Nelson, and fewer than a dozen other Valley View properties refused to sign the compact agreement. The additional charges have been called "annexation fees," "compact fees," "surcharges," and a slew of other terms. Nelson said he hadn't signed on because the 300-percent and $50 rates were just unfair.
"We asked for the $35 fee back in February," Nelson explained. According to Nelson and fellow Valley View resident Steve Fader, the entire issue could be behind them if the council adopted the $35 charge months ago.
Mayor Moore now expects property owners like Nelson to pay back the $600 in surcharges they did not pay in 2013. If they don't, and if they fail to sign onto the latest agreement, Moore said he's prepared to issue final notifications with dates of sewer line disconnection.
Nelson can point to letter after letter of threats from the city, each one threatening something to the extent of disconnection. He claimed the potential health risk Valley View faces is enough to stop the city from going through with cutting off those properties.
"The mayor knows good and well that our soil out here is clay and will not take a septic system and that shutting off sewer out here will create a health hazard," said Fader.
In the 1970s Valley View experienced sewage overflowing into the streets after a septic mishap. Elkhart health officer Dr. Daniel Nafziger explained that the vast majority, if not all of the properties in Valley View need to be tapped into the sewer system. Potential disconnection threatens sewage backup, exposure to disease and an allover health risk.
Nafziger explained the only options for homeowners would be pumping and carrying away their sewage--which could be multiple times per week--or moving out of their houses.
The new law seeks to equalize surcharges for both commercial and residential properties starting in 2014.
Residential properties outside city limits that are not being annexed will pay $35 per month in addition to usage fees. While commercial properties will may 25 percent of the assessed value of their property taxes for 2014.
Republican councilman David Henke explained that it isn't fair to have properties using the system without paying. He added that the law was full of compromises in order to get something put in place for the new year but seems like a "temporary fix."
According to Henke, there is nothing on the books for commercial properties in 2015. It is up to the council to put in place a fee for the 2015 calendar year or else those businesses will go straight to city rates before they're even annexed.