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Aldermen question $140 million water contract, plead for nonprofit exemptions

Ald. Bob Fioretti

Ald. Bob Fioretti

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Updated: April 29, 2013 12:10PM

If Chicago can spend $140 million to have a clout-heavy joint-venture oversee its water system overhaul, it can afford to spend $20 million to keep free water flowing to churches, hospitals and non-profits, aldermen argued Wednesday.

One day after the Chicago Sun-Times disclosed the “project management” contract, aldermen questioned why the job of riding herd over water and sewer projects bankrolled by a four-year doubling of water rates is not being done in-house.

“I was stunned. I thought we were gonna end the Chicago Way and have a clear and transparent process for awarding contracts — not who sent you and who you know. This one has clout written all over it,” said Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd).

“We couldn’t find a few dollars to assist those non-profits that need the help, and we can afford this? We could not have the Water Department oversee this? What makes them think these companies can do a better job than in-house?”

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) noted that one of the companies involved in the joint-venture — the Rise Group owned by Arcadis — is “pretty much running” the Emanuel-chaired Public Building Commission.

“The city should be capable of doing it in-house. If we cannot, I’d like to know why,” Sawyer said.

“If we can find $140 million for a water contract, we should work with the non-profits for a nominal fee. A lot of these non-profits are providing services to our communities. We need to look at providing them more assistance instead of burdening them with additional bills.”

Water Management spokesman Tom LaPorte has said the department has been hiring outside project managers to oversee its construction projects since former Mayor Richard M. Daley opted for that approach in 1996. That followed the massive cost overruns that tripled the cost of Millennium Park.

“It was instituted in order to improve efficiency and save costs.  This allows the department to economically and efficiently meet its infrastructure renewal goals without entailing hiring and scaling operations,” LaPorte said.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported this week that the Emanuel administration has chosen Center Joint Venture — a partnership between Arcadis U.S., Inc.; US Services, Inc. and CH2M Hill Engineers ­— to handle a massive rebuilding of Chicago’s water system bankrolled by a four-year doubling of water rates.

Jack Hartman, one of three managing partners, was a former high-ranking city and CTA official under former Mayor Richard M. Daley who went on to run the Illinois Tollway under now-convicted Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Twenty-nine aldermen have co-signed an ordinance now languishing in committee 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, Emanuel has argued that Chicago can no longer afford to spend $20 million-a-year to keep free water flowing to hospitals, churches, universities and other non-profits.

The mayor has stressed 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 has said.

Archdiocese of Chicago Chancellor Jimmy Lago has argued 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 overnights shelters, after-school programs and other social services they provide to needy Chicagoans.

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