Restaurant owners frustrated with city's handling of anti-grease ordinance

ELKHART — Some restaurant owners are frustrated with the way city officials are handling the implementation of the fats, oils and grease ordinance. 

Two downtown restaurants say the city was ill-prepared to handle the rush of applications when businesses began submitting them last summer. At least one restaurant owner says her paperwork was submitted before the initial Sept. 1 deadline but somehow was lost. 

The ordinance was passed in June to protect the city’s sewer lines, which can get blocked if fats, oils or grease enter the lines in liquid form and then harden.

Issuing fines, however, has been an uphill battle for the city. In April, city officials were told by their attorneys that they did not have the proper ordinance in place to collect fines. That issue was resolved when the City Council passed an additional ordinance at the end of April.

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As it stands, more than 70 restaurants are facing fines, including chain establishments such as McDonald’s, Long John Silver’s, PIzza Hut, Arby’s and Papa John’s Pizza.

Scroll down to see full list of businesses facing fines

After the initial $50 fine, the fine increases every 30 days, up to $100, then $200, until it hits $250. A restaurant will then face a $250 fine every 30 days until it comes into compliance with the ordinance.

Business owner refuses to pay

Janice Hayden, owner of the Old Style Deli, said she won’t pay the fine. She said she filled out her forms before the Sept. 1 deadline and that the Elkhart Utilities Department lost her paperwork, something she said the department has not tried to rectify. 

“I sent it out three weeks before the deadline, thought I was doing a good job, then this girl comes in after the deadline and says they never received one,” said Hayden. “I don’t want to fill it out again. I feel like someone should bring me a new form and help me fill it out here.” 

Hayden said she believes the city may have been targeting large businesses or chain stores in its enforcement efforts without realizing the negative effect the law could have on small businesses. 

“They do this stuff with every rule that comes through. They try to apply one rule to everyone,” she said. “The big chains have more money, so it doesn’t impact them as much, but for us it is a big deal. The smaller businesses are the ones that want to be a part of the community, not the bigger chains.” 

To make matters worse, Hayden was in Florida for most of the winter, and the deli was closed from December through February. She says she has tried to call City Hall, but she doesn’t believe it should be her responsibility to resolve the situation. 

“Sometimes it feels like they are acting militant. It doesn’t seem they were well-prepared to begin with,” Hayden said. 

The Vine, a casual dining establishment on Main Street, also is facing a fine, although its paperwork has been submitted. Brandon Kowalski, the diner’s manager, said management had a lot of difficulty filling out the form and eventually submitted it late. 

“We will see if they are really going to fine us. Hopefully they don’t,” he said. “I think the city had so many restaurants facing fines that they have been undecided on their approach from the beginning.”

Coming into compliance

All restaurants that were in operation before June 1 are required to complete a free registration application. The utility will then set up an inspection date to make sure information on the application is correct, then issue a certificate that is good for three years.

Restaurants that opened after June 1 should be in compliance with the new ordinance, which is enforced by the Elkhart County Health Department.

By measuring downstream from an establishment, the utility can determine if the business is discharging fats, oils or grease into the sewer lines. If a violation is detected, the utility will go over the establishment’s options to get the problem under control. Usually, the solution would call for either installing a grease trap or upgrading an existing one.

That could be a stumbling point for some establishments, as they may have to install an outdoor grease interceptor, which can cost more than $10,000. Some business owners say the ordinance is holding them back and imposing costs they cannot afford.

Mellonie Patcheck, a local nurse, had plans to continue her part-time wholesale bakery in Elkhart after moving from New Albany, but she said those plans were halted after realizing she couldn’t afford to come into compliance with the city’s ordinance.

Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese has said that a compromise might need to be reached in the future.

Establishments that need to fill out an application can get the proper paperwork online or by visiting the utilities office from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.

Restaurants Facing Fines by elkharttruth

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