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Emanuel: Chicago can’t afford to keep free water flowing to hospitals, churches, other non-profits

Updated: January 15, 2013 11:31AM



Chicago can no longer afford to spend $20 million-a-year to keep free water flowing to hospitals, churches, universities and other non-profits, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Thursday.

Emanuel said he’s asked his staff to study an ordinance co-signed by 29 aldermen that would restore free water to non-profits that provide education and social services to Chicagoans and have less than $250 million in assets.

But, the mayor made it clear there is little room to maneuver.

“We have to make some changes. We had to make some decisions because I didn’t think it was fair to the taxpayers of Chicago and the residents to pay full freight and, in addition to full freight, subsidize the non-profits, especially the hospitals when they were paying pretty big salaries to people,” he said.

Emanuel said he met recently with religious leaders concerned that their rising water bills would threaten their ability to provide a safety net of social services for needy Chicagoans.

Although he “welcomed their input,” the mayor said he’s determined to keep his campaign 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.

“I pledged….that we were not gonna give away free water anymore to the cost of $20 million to the taxpayers. People like Northwestern (Memorial) Hospital, University of Chicago Hospital and Shedd Aquarium were getting free water subsidized by the taxpayers and I said that [must[ come to an end,” he said.

“They were getting something the residents of Chicago were not getting. I said we’re not gonna do that. Two budgets ago, we changed that.”

Emanuel stressed that he has already softened the blow once in response to aldermanic concerns about struggling parish churches. Instead of forcing them to pay full price for city water, he offered a 60 percent water discount in 2012, 40 percent in 2013 and 20 percent in 2014 and beyond.

“They are still getting a discount relative” to what others are paying, the mayor said. 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 closed schools and reduce the safety net of overnights 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 on that day.

“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.

“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. 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.

“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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