Could annexation be the solution to Elkhart's sewer dispute?

The road to a cohesive and agreed upon sewer ordinance in the City of Elkhart has been long and turbulent.

Most recently, Mayor Dick Moore surprised members of the common council by releasing a detailed map of annexation. Some call the plan “aggressive,” pointing to the 15 designated areas and 243 properties as a much faster-paced annexation than Moore intended back when he proposed his latest sewer ordinance.

Moore wants the council to review and approve the 16 areas within the next few months. However councilman like Brian Dickerson said nothing can happen until a formal proposal has been made.

“I believe the documents and maps we have received from the administration thus far are tentative plans,” said Dickerson, “but I have seen nothing concrete that would lead me to believe it will happen all at once or address the sewer issue in its entirety.”

Monday night, the common council moved to discuss the sewer ordinance in committee hearings. It is likely that those hearing and discussion will include Moore’s road map to annexation.

More than a decade ago, the City of Elkhart allowed properties outside city limits to tap into the preexisting sewer system at various rates. The idea at the time was the additional revenues, either from a 300-percent usage fee or 75-percent property tax value fee would eventually be put aside in exchange for eventual annexation. But that never came to be.

Elkhart Citizens for Fair Sewer Rates, a large group of businesses and residential property owners within and outside the City of Elkhart released a statement yesterday regarding Mayor Moore’s plan:
“Recently, Mayor Moore announced an aggressive annexation plan and attempted to justify his excessive sewer charges by calling them “payments in lieu of annexation.” But Indiana law does not allow his proposed fees to be tied to sewer services.”

Rocky Enfield, is part of Elkhart Citizens for Fair Sewer Rates, he said the mayor’s most recent proposed ordinance is “fatally flawed” because it still allows surcharges to be assessed based on the property value of each business.

Moore’s fourth sewer ordinance proposal calls for a gradual five year annexation process whereby the percentage of property taxes each property would pay as part of its sewer surcharge fee would be reduced until that property was eventually annexed.

Historic delays in annexation have businesses and residences worried.

“So just because the mayor says he has an annexation plan doesn’t mean his, or someone else’s, is actually going to follow through on,” Enfield added, “Having a plan and implementing a plan are two different things.”

So what does Elkhart Citizens for Fair Sewer Rates want? According to Enfield, the group supported a proposal by Republican Councilman David Henke which assessed usage-based fees to non-city properties.

Many businesses do not see the point of being annexed into the city. As things stand now, properties outside city limits receive emergency response from the sheriff’s department, township fire departments and street plowing services. However, when asked if Enfield personally would allow his business to be annexed, he responded “probably not.”

The process to formally annex the properties laid out by Moore’s plan is lengthy. Each individual parcel of land must be voted on by the common council either individually or as part of a larger cluster of properties, said Councilman Dave Thomas.

Thomas said at this point the council will likely reach some type of agreement on the current ordinance and annexation plan. However, based on the disagreement between Republicans and Democrats on the council and administration it will likely not be an easy conclusion to come to.

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