Chesterton Tribune



Board rebuffs citizens' attempts to question drainage fee

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Members of the Kankakee Valley Historical Society and Izaak Walton League Porter County Chapter attended Monday’s inaugural meeting of the Porter County Stormwater Advisory Board, wanting to discuss the appeal process for the user fee, but board members insisted it was “not appropriate” to discuss outside of a public hearing.

A handful of appeals have come in to the new Department of Development and Storm Water Management since the fees went out with property tax bills last month, the department’s director Robert Thompson said. Some of those are being resolved by the administration, he said, in instances such as combining parcels under one fee.

The first person to file an appeal was KVHS President John Hodson who wanted to make comments to share his experiences. Hodson recently submitted a letter to Commissioner Jeff Good and to the board outlining his criticisms of the appeals process.

Good said he received the letter and asked Hodson not to talk about his appeal, informing him that there will be a formal hearing where he can explain his case.

“We have a due process,” Good told Hodson.

Hodson accused the board members of not having “an open mind” as he was continually asked to refrain from talking about his appeal.

“I think we have been open-minded,” Good responded, saying the fee had been created due to a federal mandate.

Other audience members such as Jim Sweeney, president of the Izaak Walton League Porter County Chapter, raised their hand to speak but were not called upon before the gavel was dropped to adjourn the meeting.

County Surveyor Breitzke after the meeting backed Good’s position that “it was not appropriate to address (the appeal) without having all the interested parties present.”

“We want the public to be aware of all the facts. It’s for their good as well as the good of the petitioner,” Breitzke told the Chesterton Tribune.

One of the things Hodson still requires for his appeal, according to Thompson, is notification to surrounding property owners. Hodson argued he didn’t need to notify neighbors since he filed the application before that amendment was added.

Public comment was not part of the meeting’s agenda.

Both Breitzke and Good told the Tribune the purpose of Monday’s meeting was simply to orient the board with the protocols of the new department and ongoing projects, not to have public discussion.

Good said notice of the meeting was sent out for the sake of transparency.

The public will be allowed to comment at future meetings at appropriate times, he said, just as the drainage board allowed at its meetings.

As a county board, the Stormwater Advisory Board is subject to Indiana open meetings and open records laws.

The reason so many conservation groups have spoken out is “they don’t want to pay the fee,” Good said. He said he finds it ironic since it was those same organizations that lobbied for the MS4 storm water management mandate that prompted the fees.

Others in the audience who were not heard came to argue against the establishment of the fees.

For residences, the annual fee is $120 per year on less than 10 acres, $150 for properties 10 to 19.99 acres and $180 for 20 acres or more.

Agricultural land is $2.75 per acre annually and non-residential ranges from $15 per month to $18.75.

The fee only applies to properties in the unincorporated areas of the county.

The County Commissioners and Council enacted the fee late last year by public ordinance and received testimony from numerous non-profit conservation groups that the fee should be reduced or waived since their work is to improve water quality and reduce runoff.

The ordinance laid out an appeal process and conservationists were told by the Commissioners, who make up the Stormwater Management Board with Breitzke, that decisions on appeals would be made on a case-by-case basis.

Appeal application

A copy of the appeal application was shown to board members on Monday by Robert Thompson, Director of the Department of Development and Stormwater Management, which states that it is “the burden of the property owner to show that the County is faulty in assessing the storm water user fee.”

The property owner is encouraged to supply any information that would support their appeal. Reasons for an appeal, given as a checklist on the appeal application, include incorrect identification of use of property for purposes of determining a storm water user fee, mathematical errors, errors in identification or that the property is not subject to the fee according to code.

Thompson said appeals would be heard by the advisory board with a public hearing. The board would either recommend to the Stormwater Management board to approve or deny an appeal, similar to the County Plan Commission. One difference however is that no public hearing would be held by the management board, only by the advisory board, Thompson said.

But like the Plan Commission, the applicant must notify neighboring properties by certified mail their intention to appeal their fee.

The advisory board will meet again on Monday, May 23, at 5 p.m. In the next few months, meetings will be held in the County Administration Center’s lower level meeting room so maps can be more easily viewed by the board and public.

Good added that creating the new storm water department -- which encompasses the County Plan Commission, Building Commission, Redevelopment Commission, and GIS Department -- has brought much needed efficiency. The County has also reduced its number of parcels by 10 percent by combining some properties, making less work and cost in the Assessor and Auditor offices, he said.

Elections and staff

The first order of business was for the board to choose its officers for the rest of the year. Jim Polarek, a former County Councilman, was elected President and Scott Severson is Vice-President.

Introductions of department staff were made by Thompson. Assistant Director is Kristy Marasco, MS4 Coordinator is Rich Hudson, GIS Manager is Chuck Miller, Drainage Project Director is Dave Burrus, Project Manager is Rich Graeber and Clerical Secretary is Beth Moench.

Thompson said the department is close to hiring an engineer.



Posted 5/10/2016





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