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Cardinal George diving in to political controversy over City Hall turning off free water spigotto churches

Cardinal Francis George

Cardinal Francis George

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Updated: May 29, 2013 7:06AM

Cardinal Francis George is diving into the political controversy caused by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to cut off the free water spigot to struggling churches and non-profits that provide a safety net of social services to needy Chicagoans.

The Cardinal is scheduled to appear Tuesday at a news conference at St. Paul Church of God in Christ, 4500 S. Wabash, called by an “inter-faith coalition” of religious leaders to turn up the heat on Emanuel.

The cardinal’s spokesperson Colleen Dolan said George is “willing to lend his voice” to the campaign to restore the $20 million-a-year perk because he’s “very concerned” about the impact soaring water bills will have on Misericordia and struggling parish churches that serve Chicago’s neediest residents.

“The financial impact is tremendous on institutions that can least afford to spend all this money. The irony of the whole thing is that these are the very institutions that are providing services to the people of this city,” Dolan said Thursday.

“I’ve listened to the heartfelt stories on the big bills they’re getting. That’s the frustration. Where do they get the money to buy food for their food kitchens? What about the impact of a water bill on a place like Misericordia? This is a new and added expense to an institution that uses a lot of water. That’s one of our agencies.”

George clashed with former Mayor Richard M. Daley on a variety of issues with little success. They butted heads on issues ranging from abortion and gay marriage to affordable housing set-asides and Notre Dame’s decision to choose President Obama as its commencement speaker.

If George had limited sway with Daley, it remains to be seen what clout he’ll wield with Emmanuel.

“The synagogues are all behind this, too. I’m surprised at the number of rabbis who are gonna be coming forward. They’re all supporting this, too,” said Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), a leading crusader to restore the free water perk.

“Many of these churches and not-for-profits are on the verge of collapsing because of the high water bills now going into effect that were passed by…this City Council. It’s time to right the ship,” Fioretti said.

A mayoral spokesman said the administration understands the religious leaders’ and non-profits’ views, but added “this is not an issue only felt by churches and non-profits, however, as residents throughout Chicago are also feeling the burden of paying their fair share for water, and are meeting their obligations.

“We are working with aldermen, non-profit organizations and stakeholders to consider additional options while striving to ensure fairness throughout the city.”

Last fall, Archdiocese of Chicago Chancellor Jimmy Lago warned aldermen 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.

Twenty-nine aldermen subsequently co-signed an ordinance that would restore free water to non-profits 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 non-profits.

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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