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Ideas for free water for nonprofits percolate among aldermen

Updated: May 11, 2013 6:32AM

An influential alderman vowed Tuesday to restore free water flowing to struggling churches and nonprofits — even though Mayor Rahm Emanuel has insisted Chicago cannot afford the $20 million break.

Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), chairman of the City Council’s Budget Committee, said a subcommittee formed to discuss the financial squeeze on parish churches will meet again soon to discuss new ideas to restore the free-water perk.

“Even though the mayor said, ‘no,’ we can still discuss the matter. I believe that we can ... do justice for those who are in harm’s way in our opinion,” Austin said.

“A multitude of members have been working with the budget director to see how we can afford this waiver. We’re gonna discuss it again. We’re hoping we’ll be able to move forward on some ideas. For the reasons the masses have given us, we should be able to work something out.”

Austin refused to say what the break would be or how she planned to pay for it.

She simply said, “We go down to 20 percent of the bill, [but] there should be some exemptions in various areas because a small church can’t afford that. A nonprofit can’t afford that. They are so small in numbers. To put that kind of burden on them [is unfair]. We do need to kind of look out for those most affected.”

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), the Emanuel ally serving as Budget Committee vice chairman, agreed that aldermen need to “provide some relief” for smaller nonprofits on “really tight” budgets.

“Perhaps that means applying a means test so you’re not blowing a huge hole in the budget, but providing relief to those folks who truly cannot afford these bills,” Reilly said.

Ald. Joe Moore (49th) said he, too, has heard from neighborhood organizations “really hurting as a result of having to pay for something that, for years” was provided by the city for free.

“I personally would like to see some sort of sliding scale so that, not just churches, but other not-for-profit organizations barely struggling to survive be given some consideration,” he said.

“The cost to the city could be reduced by having a sliding scale. The big guys ... have to pay the full-freight. The little guys get close to a free ride. The people in the middle pay some.”

Budget Director Alex Holt could not be reached for comment.

Last fall, Archdiocese of Chicago Chancellor Jimmy Lago warned aldermen 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, afterschool programs and other social services they provide to needy Chicagoans.

Twenty-nine aldermen subsequently co-signed an ordinance that would restore free water to nonprofits that provide education and social services to Chicagoans and have less than $250 million in assets.

Emanuel responded by claiming Chicago can no longer afford to spend $20 million a year to keep free water flowing to hospitals, churches, universities and other nonprofits.

The mayor stressed that 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 said.

The drive to restore the free water perk gained momentum last month when the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Emanuel has awarded a $140 million contract to a clout-heavy joint venture to ride herd over a massive rebuilding of Chicago’s water system bankrolled by a four-year doubling of water rates.

If Chicago can afford to hire an outside quarterback instead of having the city’s Department of Water Management oversee the project, it can afford to keep free water flowing to struggling churches and non-profits, aldermen argued.

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