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Emanuel’s plan to restore free water to some churches, non-profits advances

Updated: June 9, 2013 6:25AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to restore free water to churches and non-profits with assets under $1 million advanced to the City Council floor Tuesday, despite warnings that the “cold-hearted” compromise would destroy a safety net of social services.

The City Council’s Budget Committee approved the mayor’s plan over the objections of Elder Kevin Anthony Ford, director of the St. Paul Church of God in Christ.

Ford said the $1 million threshold needs to be raised — to at least $3 million in assets with real estate exempt — to protect parish churches struggling to pay their water bills after Emanuel honored a campaign promise to turn off the free water spigot.

The Catholic Archidocese of Chicago is not impacted by the problem, courtesy of a 19th Century legal structure that states that it’s the Archbishop of Chicago who owns the churches, rectories and schools and holds the property in trust for them as the beneficial owners. There is no such protection on the Protestant side.

“Whether by design or not, there’s an unfairness that one organization would be treated differently than another. . . .It is arbitrary and capricious. . . .The aldermen need to correct that,” Ford said Tuesday.

“Franciscan Outreach, Hope House, the Ark will be immediately impacted because of the cold-heartedness of the current ordinance,” Ford said. “That is going to cause a major corruption in operations and subsequent services to people of Chicago in dire need of services, shelters, people who have to eat. This threshold must be elevated. Real estate needs to be taken off the table.”

Diana J. Faust, executive director of the Franciscan Outreach Association, said unless real estate and property improvements are excluded from the measurement of net assets, the two buildings her association owns put net assets over the $1 million benchmark.

“If we had to choose between paying a water bill and a case manager, we’d have to fire the case manager,” Faust said.

“One less case manager in our organizations means 1,000 less contacts between a trained professional and a homeless person on the streets. It means 20 or 30 less people into housing,” Faust said.

John O’Malley, director of legal services for the Catholic Archdiocese, said the Archdiocese stands with the other churches in demanding a higher threshold and a real estate exemption.

“The issue of whether the real property of the Catholic Church is included in the assets of a parish church or not does not solve the problems for the other churches that would remain impacted,” O’Malley said.

James Serritella, an attorney representing the Archdiocese, added, “Churches are single-use buildings. They can’t be used very easily for anything else. The real assets of a church are less the building and more their income. It’s not really fair to include the real estate of any church — whether the church owns it in a beneficial way or in an ordinary way.”

Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee, applauded Emanuel for “going a long way to accommodate the concerns” of religious groups, adding, “When neither side is happy, it’s a good compromise.”

But, he later acknowledged that further “tinkering” may be necessary.

“To draw a legal and practical, middle-of-the road position is the challenge we’re looking at,” Burke said.

Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th), who prodded the mayor to compromise, told Ford, “We’re not trying to do anything that would cause you any [hardship] — and we’re gonna continue to work at this. When we pass this out and see that there are some amendments we can put forth on your suggestions, we’re gonna do that.”

Under the mayor’s plan, non-profit groups with net assets between $1-$10 million would be eligible for a 60 percent exemption. Groups with net assets between $10 million and $250 million would get a 25 percent exemption. Groups with more than $250 million pay full freight.

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