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Water rates to keep going up after initial 4-year hike

John J. Kim~Sun-Times

John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 21, 2011 10:14AM

Chicagoans and residents of 125 suburbs that purchase Lake Michigan water will not only be forced to swallow Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to double water and sewer fees over the next four years.

When the massive increases expire in 2016, there will be annual increases tied to inflation to automatically adjust what is now “one of the lowest water rates in the country,” Budget Director Alex Holt said Wednesday.

“Thereafter, both fees will be adjusted upward only with an increase in the consumer price index, not ever to exceed 5 percent. This will keep the price of delivering fresh drinking water to Chicago and 125 suburban communities on pace with broader economic trends,” Holt told aldermen during opening day of City Council hearings on the mayor’s budget.

Starting in 2014, city sticker fees will also be raised every other year — for all categories of vehicles — to match the inflation rate, said Chief Financial Officer Lois Scott. The ceiling for that hike will also be 5 percent.

Last week, Emanuel unveiled a $6.3 billion budget for 2012 that calls for: laying off 517 employees; eliminating 2,100 vacancies; raising taxes, fines and fees by $220 million and eliminating the $75-a-year refuse collection rebate paid to condominium owners.

Opening day traditionally reveals the political pressure points — areas of controversy where the mayor may be forced to bend.

On Wednesday, downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) questioned the one percentage point increase in the city’s hotel tax and the $2-a-weekday “congestion fee” on downtown and River North parking.

“I’m hearing from the garage industry en masse that this will put them out of business,” Reilly said.

City Comptroller Amer Ahmad stressed that condo owners who park in their high-rise garages would be exempt from the daily congestion fee. And he argued that the $1.78-a-day hotel tax would generate $1 million to “better market” Chicago as a destination for conventions and tourism.

“That’s good to hear,” Reilly said, noting that Chicago spends “pennies on the dollars” to market itself compared to its competitors in Las Vegas.

For Finance Committee Chairman Edward M. Burke (14th), there were two points of contention: the $75-a-year condo rebate he championed in 1984 and the mayor’s plan to cut off the free water spigot for hospitals, churches and non-profits.

“We may have a political issue with this. … Think about the parishes we all represent,” Burke said.

“Why should some hospitals that serve the indigent get a [20 percent] break while a Lutheran or Catholic or Methodist church that serves a poor population not get the same consideration?”

Ald. Ray Suarez (31st) added, “They’re doing the Lord’s work. They serve everyone. It’s only fair.”

Ald. Danny Solis (25th) and Marge Laurino (39th) focused on Emanuel’s plan to cut 363 jobs at Chicago Public libraries, impacting operations at all hours — not just on Mondays and Fridays, when libraries would open at noon.

Holt said the hit list “looks like a large number,” primarily because it includes so many part-time employees. Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey insisted on it to avert all-day closings that have hit other major cities, Holt said.

The budget director further noted that, if union leaders don’t go along with closing on Monday and Friday mornings, the alternative would be to “close all libraries” on Mondays.

Sources said library administrators have been ordered not to discuss the cuts with the news media. But, they have started a Facebook page — “Save Chicago Public Libraries and Library Jobs” — to marshall support to reverse the cuts.

The mayor’s financial team took copious notes during Wednesday’s hearing and said they would be open to making changes, provided aldermen identify dollar-for-dollar replacement revenues.

They also assured aldermen that they plan to maintain and accelerate the timetable of a $66 million-a-year program that allocates $1.32 million to each of the city’s 50 wards to spend on infrastructure repairs of the local alderman’s choosing.

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