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Mayor’s floor leader blasts Catholic Church over water squabble

Updated: May 1, 2013 5:38PM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Council floor leader lashed out at the Catholic Church on Wednesday for rejecting the mayor’s compromise offer on water fees for nonprofits even after, the alderman claimed, failing to clean its own house on the priest sex abuse scandal.

“They’re clearly not owning up to the fact that there are people out there damaged by the church and they’re talking about free water. Really?” said Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th).

Describing himself as “a Catholic, not a happy one these days,” O’Connor said, “The church has so many internal problems, they ought to satisfy their own problems and they ought to address the things that are in the paper every day and stop talking about free water. Quit saying that they handled things right in the past or . . . or, even worse, saying mistakes were made in the past, but they’re not correcting those mistakes.”

Earlier this week, Cardinal Francis George jumped into the controversy caused by Emanuel’s decision to cut off the free water spigot to struggling churches and nonprofits that provide a safety net of social services to needy Chicagoans.

The cardinal appeared at a news conference called by an “inter-faith coalition” of religious leaders to reject the mayor’s offer to restore the free water perk to groups with assets under $1 million.

The cardinal called the lake a “gift from God” and said maybe “we should start charging the city for water” — not the other way around.

The remark was obviously meant to be a joke, but O’Connor didn’t take it that way. He essentially advised the cardinal not to push his luck.

“For Christ sake, we sell everybody water. And now all of the sudden because they’re a church, we’re not supposed to sell them water?” O’Connor said.

“At some point, people are gonna say, `How `bout looking at property taxes” and eliminating the property tax exemption for churches and nonprofits? “We’ll give you free water. How `bout paying for the property you guys own?”

Archdiocese of Chicago Chancellor Jimmy Lago has warned that that the phase-out of the water waiver would cost Catholic churches $2.5 million a year, forcing them to close schools and reduce the safety net of overnight shelters, after-school programs and other social services they provide to needy Chicagoans.

O’Connor is not impressed with that argument, either.

“The calculations that they did essentially said, `We provide these services. We do the education. We do all this,’ and they want to bill the city for actually doing what a church is supposed to do,” the alderman said.

“The mayor is trying to compromise and, if they think that it’s God’s gift to us, well then should we charge any citizen of Chicago for water? Should we charge any of the suburbs for water? Stick to praying and stick to saving souls and let us run the city.”

Under the mayor’s new proposal nonprofits worth more than $1 million, would get discounts, but not free water.

Nonprofit groups with net assets between $1-$10 million would be eligible for a 60 percent exemption from water payments.

Groups with net assets between $10-$250 milion will be eligible for a 25 percent exemption. Groups with more than $250 million would receive no exemption. And public museums would maintain their 20 percent exemption regardless of net asset level.

Religious leaders said the water fee exemption should be based on operating budgets — not net assets.

Lago condemned O’Connor’s “extreme” and “over-the-top” reaction to, what Lago called a “reasonable” request from religious leaders.

“It’s unconscionable that Ald. O’Connor would refer to the sex abuse scandal as his central argument to oppose reviewing this water fee waiver,” Lago said.

“This is not an issue of the Catholic Church. If he was paying attention, he would know there were hundreds and hundreds of churches on the West, South and North sides and a lot of nonprofits, especially overnight shelters, that care a great deal about their ability to deliver service.”

Lago argued that Emanuel’s proposed compromise was “delivered without any consultation” with religious leaders.

“We asked for clarity about what `net assets’ mean and, from what we’re able to determine, pretty much only the street-front churches would be eligible because most of the churches synagogues and mosques in this city would have property valued over $1 million, but operating deficits in their budgets,” he said.

Emanuel said Wednesday he believes his offer strikes the “proper balance” between the city’s need to eliminate a $20-million-a-year perk it can no longer afford and the need to recognize the social service contribution made by religious organizations and nonprofits.

“In the campaign, I made a pledge. We’re not gonna have free water. We can’t do that,” he said.

“We made, in my first budget, what I think are the right changes. They’ve come back. We measured it. I’ve talked over the last four or five months [about] a way that nonprofits and religious groups can continue to pay something, but also the balance that, we’re gonna change the rules that existed before we can’t afford it as a city because we have difficult times.”

The mayor 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.

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