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Aldermen propose restoring churches free water perk`

Updated: January 14, 2013 7:27AM

Chicago aldermen responded Wednesday to a plea from churches that provide a safety net of social services — by proposing that the city fully restore their free water perk.

Aldermen Bob Fioretti (2nd) and Howard Brookins (21st) convinced a majority of their colleagues to sign on to an ordinance that would restore free water to non-profits that provide education and social services to Chicagoans and have less than $250 million in assets. The ordinance was co-signed by 29 aldermen — three more than the amount needed to pass it.

“I’ve got 60 churches and 30 non-profits that are all feeling the squeeze,” Fioretti said.

“If they have a charitable and moral purpose, they’re helping our kids by providing after-school programs and they’re having a positive effect in the community, we should help them out. The economy is sluggish. People are not giving. We’re having a terrible time in our communities.”

Pressed on where he would find up to $18 million needed to keep the free water flowing, Fioretti said he would look first to surplus funds generated by tax-increment-financing (TIF) districts.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel campaigned on a promise to turn off the free water spigot to hospitals, churches, universities and other nonprofits to usher in an era of shared sacrifice needed to confront the city’s structural deficit.

To address aldermanic concerns about struggling parish churches, the mayor subsequently agreed to soften the blow — by offering a 60 percent water discount in 2012, 40 percent in 2013 and 20 percent in 2014 and beyond.

Apparently, the phased out discount was not enough.

Last month, Archdiocese of Chicago Chancellor Jimmy Lago appeared before the Budget Committee to plead for relief.

He argued that the phase-out of the water waiver would cost Catholic churches $2.5 million-a-year, forcing them to reduce the safety net of overnight shelters, after school programs and other social services they provide to needy Chicagoans.

“If we’re starting to add $60,000 or $70,000 to those budgets, which already run a deficit, that is something that may impact the ability of a [Catholic] school to remain open,” Lago said.

He added, “If we have to make some cutbacks…in terms of beat patrol having an outreach for free in one of our churches — if we can’t keep the gym open at night to keep kids off the street — that’s a quantifiable impact to the city.”

Elder Kevin Anthony Ford, director of the St. Paul Church of God in Christ, said churches don’t consider themselves a “charity case.” They “provide a service” he said.

“No one in Chicago does what we do with fallen humanity. We stand in the gap before persons lose it all. And that needs to be recognized,” Ford said on that day.

“We’re asking for reasonable accommodations to help us help brothers and sisters who have fallen on hard times who might not have a home, cannot eat, might not have shelter.”

Aldermen from across the city sympathized with the churches’ plea, as they did last year when they ended the lucrative perk to save the city $18 million-a-year.

But they were not at all certain how to replace the money or how to carve out a hardship exemption for struggling churches without restoring free water to Catholic universities like DePaul and Loyola that charge students more than $40,000 and can afford to pay their water bills.

Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee, asked Budget Director Alex Holt to explore the possibility of re-financing bonds issued to rebuild Chicago’s crumbling water and sewer system and using the savings to give grants to struggling churches.

But that approach is also problematic.

“What’s to prevent a larger non-profit with a better balance sheet than the city from saying, `Where’s mine?’ “ said downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd).

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