After months of discussion, the Terre Haute City Council unanimously voted down a controversial stormwater fee that would have affected property owners in the sanitary district.

After describing why he opposed it, council member Neil Garrison made a motion to act on the fee, which Martha Crossen seconded. After discussion, council members voted against the stormwater fee, 9-0.

Garrison said he viewed the fee as “absolutely to subsidize our general fund,” which has a significant deficit.

In response, Mayor Duke Bennett said he will introduce an ordinance next month that proposes about a 30 percent sewer rate increase; the ordinance was read as new business at Thursday’s council meeting. He says new revenue is needed to pay for the next phase of the federally mandated, long-term control plan and other costs.

Prior to the vote, Bennett asked the council to table action for a month to attempt to work out issues, although he was aware it probably would be defeated. “I think it’s really important we continue this dialogue because we have to solve the problem,” he told them. “We have to get to a solution one way or another in a fairly short amount of time.”

He also, said, “I ask you not to defeat this because it will put us in a really bad spot with the Indiana Finance Authority, State Revolving Fund folks, EPA and IDEM … if we decide not to do this with no backup plan in place.”

The mayor says the city must raise $5.6 million in new revenue per year, whether through stormwater fee or a sewer rate increase, to meet all the demands it faces, including the Long Term Control Plan, 125 percent bond coverage on current and future bonds, drainage projects and Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) that goes to the general fund. 

Prior to the vote, several council members explained their opposition.

Karrum Nasser echoed Garrison’s comments that the fee is “all about PILOT” and moving money from the sanitary district to the city’s general fund. He said he can’t ask his constituents to pay for a fee for services they don’t receive. “I represent Terre Town and Edgebrook subdivisions, and both of those neighborhoods do not have sidewalks, let alone storm drains.”

Earl Elliott believes the council, city administration and sanitary board need to agree on how much PILOT and administrative fees should go from the sanitary district to the general fund for 2017 through 2020. “Then I can calculate a reasonable amount of new revenue to satisfy” the Indiana Finance Authority, he said. He wants to limit that new revenue to the minimum amount necessary.

George Azar said he is not comfortable with the stormwater fee proposal as written, and now, he fears the council next month will again see many people protesting a sewer rate increase. “I have an inkling that isn’t going to pass either,” he said. Citizens already are complaining about sewer bills. “If we get this sewer rate increase next month, we’ll have the same problem.”

Azar asked if a combination of stormwater and a sewer rate increase might work, maybe a lower sewer rate increase as well as stormwater breaks for nonprofits. He doesn’t like either one, he said, but at the same time, he’s being told “doing nothing is not an option.”

Azar said he doesn’t want to be responsible for federal authorities fining the city and mandating rates.

“Like everyone else, I’m backed up into a corner here. I won’t vote for this tonight because obviously it’s not going to pass and I’m not going to stand on a limb by myself,” Azar said. “I’m hopeful we can all come to some agreement later that will satisfy at least 80 percent of the people.” He, too, wants as minimal an increase in fees or rates as is possible.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, eight people spoke, including those who’ve addressed the issue before, and they urged the council to vote the proposal down. “We don’t want this,” said Jeff Harpole, pastor of New Life Fellowship Church. “Don’t kick the can down the road.” He estimated the stormwater fee would cost the church $15,000 per year.

Others urging the council to vote it down included businessman Ward Hubbard, Pat Goodwin, Richard Shagley, Myra Wilkey and Noah Gambill, who said he represented the Taxpayers Association of Vigo County.

Wilkey urged the council to vote “no” so it can “deal with the real issue, which I think is the city’s budget.” Her comments, and those of others, drew applause. 

Goodwin asked the council to vote on the stormwater fee and vote it down. “We’re all tired of coming to the meetings,” he said. “Don’t put it off.”

After the meeting, Bennett said he understood council members’ concerns, “but they offer no alternatives or no solutions ... We’ve got to solve the problem.” 

He also said, “I don’t want to make it sound like they [federal and state authorities] are going to come crashing down on us tomorrow. That’s not how it works. But we will feel the pain from this if we don’t raise revenues to pay for the next bond”  for the Long Term Control Plan.

In other matters, the council approved a resolution in support of a tax abatement for Warren Village II, a project proposed by the Terre Haute Housing Authority consisting of an apartment building and scattered single-family homes.

 The $5.2 million project is two-pronged. One part would be a new, single-story building across the street from the existing Warren Village Apartments and would consist of 22 one-bedroom apartments at 2420 Fifth Ave., the former Amvets site. The second part involves 16 single-family, three-bedroom homes constructed on Redevelopment Department-owned parcels scattered throughout the city. In both cases, the housing is intended to serve low and medium income residents and those with disabilities.

 The project would put properties back on the tax rolls, officials said. Over 10 years, an estimated $150,967 would be paid in property taxes, with $87,482 abated.

The council must act again next month on Warren Village II to confirm the abatement.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or at sue.loughlin@tribstar.com Follow Sue on Twitter @TribStarSue.

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