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Chicago churches getting soaked by water meter installation expenses

Updated: March 29, 2012 8:13AM

Chicago churches losing their free water perk are getting soaked by another major expense they did not anticipate and, in some cases, cannot afford: installing water meters.

The city has long required meters in church buildings, but the ordinance was seldom enforced. So long as free water was still flowing to nonprofits, there was no need to measure usage.

But now that all 6,113 nonprofits are being weaned away from free water — with a 60 percent discount this year, 40 percent next year, 20 percent in 2014 and zero in 2015 — meters are a must, even for struggling parish churches.

Now, churches bracing for their first water bills are being hit with a meter installation cost that can range from $1,000 for an inside installation to several thousand dollars or more for an outside meter serving more than one building.

For St. Paul’s Church by-the-Lake, 7100 N. Ashland, the tab is a staggering $11,000 for an underground water meter.

“It’s an old building built in 1914. What makes it expensive is they have two water service intakes. But an $11,000 payment for a church would be outrageous,” said local Ald. Joe Moore (49th), who got a call from Father John Heschle, pastor of St. Paul’s.

Moore said when Heschle voiced concern about the cost, city inspectors suggested a less costly alternative that involved “installing the meter beneath the building in the basement” instead of “going out into the street.”

“He was going to get an estimate and, if it’s still trouble to him, I said I would do what I could to help him,” Moore said. Heschle did not return repeated phone calls.

Tom LaPorte, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Water Management, acknowledged that 400 churches still don’t have meters months after being informed of the need to install them.

Of the 250 churches that have responded to the city’s outreach, 113 “will require outdoor vaults, the cost of which is entirely on them. They must hire contractors and their permit fees will pay for the meter” provided by the city, LaPorte said.

The other 137 responsive churches are scheduling installations. An additional 150 churches have ignored the city’s warnings, site visits and registered letters. City Hall is now threatening to strip them of their charitable designations and reclassify them as “commercial accounts,” LaPorte said.

“We understand there is some expense. This can vary, depending on the number of buildings and configuration of the plumbing. Under the ordinance, we have no choice but to insist that this obligation be met,” LaPorte said.

“For more than six months, we have communicated with them, conducted site visits, left literature, sent registered letters and taken other steps to help them achieve this. Through 2011, we were even assisting them with installation. Since the New Year, we are simply requiring that they install meters and pay for the water they use.”

In a report to the City Council last year, Inspector General Joe Ferguson estimated that the city could save $15.2 million a year by eliminating water and sewer fee waivers or save less by restructuring the perk to subsidize smaller organizations.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel campaigned on a promise to cut off the free water spigot to nonprofits to usher in an era of shared sacrifice needed to confront the city’s $1.2 billion-a-year structural deficit.

In his 2012 budget, Emanuel initially required nonprofits to pay full freight — including a doubling of water and sewer fees over the next four years — only to soften the blow in response to a flood of aldermanic concerns about struggling parish churches.

In 2005, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley tried to end the free water for hospitals, universities and other nonprofit giants with annual water bills over $50,000.

He ended up swallowing a watered-down version — that only applied to six institutions with assets exceeding $350 million — amid concern that the stricter crackdown would have threatened the viability of inner-city hospitals.

Contributing:David Roeder

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