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Outdoor ministries at center of concern for Shipshewana West sewer project

Two lakeside Christian retreat centers told the LaGrange County Regional Utility District Board that, based on the district’s expected user rates, they will likely not be able to survive if they are billed as campgrounds.

The district held its public hearing on the proposed rates for the Shipshewana West project Monday night in front of a full house in the Wolfe Building in Shipshewana, with over 120 people attending. Among them were supporters for the Brethren Retreat Center at Shipshewana Lake and the Michiana Baptist Camp, concerned with the prospect of user rates that they say could put the camps out of business.

The district is giving the two centers the choice to go with the flat rate billing charge or opt to meter the flow as the district does for campgrounds. Following a public hearing, the board approved the advertised rate ordinance with an amendment to allow the two centers to opt for a metered billing rate, as the district currently allows for campgrounds.

During the public hearing, Brethren Retreat Center Director Rick Miller spoke to the board, asking them to not compare the two outdoor ministries to for-profit campgrounds. “We rely upon donations to supplement operational expenses and provide facility improvements,” Miller said.

Miller noted that the proposed rates calculate the center’s occupancy at 100 percent for 365 days a year. “Outdoor ministries typically operate at 15-25 percent occupancy,” Miller said. “A 100 percent occupancy rate is an unsustainable calculation method.” He added that, if they were running at 100 percent occupancy, the center “would be making serious plans to expand our facility and not worrying about how to pay the next monthly bill.”

Michiana Baptist Camp Director Don Chesher asked about the installation of the meters, and was told that the cost of the meters and the installation would be paid by the property owners. Meter and manhole costs alone would total close to $3,000, plus any contractor fees. Metered users are also assessed a $15 monthly fee.

“We operate only two weeks a year. We don’t make the money that you’re proposing for rates,” Chesher said. “I don’t understand why you want to put us out of business.”

The district’s legal counsel, John Gastineau, answered that the district did not want to put anyone out of business, but the district “only has so many options. We’ve offered the lower rate to the campgrounds.”

Under the district’s ordinance, Gastineau noted, campgrounds are billed for the metered flow amount from June 1 through Aug. 31. The remaining months are billed at the higher of either the lowest monthly bill from the summer period or the actual metered flow amount. The metered rates include the calculations for the debt service on the system.

With Michiana Baptist only occupied for two weeks, the center could potentially see the “off-season” billing be at only the actual amount of flow, if any, during the winter months, plus the $15 monthly meter fee.

Shipshewana Lake property owner Diane Fiedler told the board that they only use their home for 55 days a year, and asked about getting a meter for their property. Gastineau explained that the meter option applies only to campgrounds and that the flat rate billing method has been shown to be the most cost effective for rural systems that do not provide a water service. “It increases the capital, maintenance and operational costs to the district,” Gastineau said.

Still, both outdoor ministries contend that they do not fit the description of “campground.” Miller pointed out that that the rate ordinance uses an equivalency factor of 0.3 per campsite at a RV campground. It has a factor of 0.267 for a single camp bed. “It is hard to believe that one camp bed would create as much effluent as one RV campsite which accommodates up to six to eight people,” Miller stated.

Miller asked the board to consider an equivalency factor for the outdoor ministries comparable to a school, day care or church as defined in the rate ordinance.

Miller noted that the comparable factor would “provide services without stressing a seasonal operation and maintains some cash flow for the viability of the Shipshewana West Sewer Project. A little income is better than zero income,” Miller said.

If both ministries are forced to close because of the costs, the system would lose just over 20 percent of the 251 EDUs, (Equivalent Domestic Units) that it uses to calculate billing rates. That could equal $3,000 or more in lost revenue that would then be passed onto the other uses, which could see the $68 per month single family home rate increase to over $80 per month.