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Smaller homes - but bigger water bills

Updated: November 19, 2010 5:00PM



The owners of smaller homes in Chicago often pay more for water than their neighbors with bigger homes, a Chicago Sun-Times investigation found.

And it has nothing to do with the amount of water they use.

If you have a water meter--and only about three of every 10 homes in Chicago does--generally you're paying less for water than your neighbors in smaller homes who don't have a meter, the Sun-Times found.

That's the result of a water-billing system that charges metered homes for the water actually used but non-metered homes based on a flawed, century-old formula that relies on three key measurements:

The width of the lot--but not how far back the property goes.

The width of the home--but not the front to back measurement.

And the height of the home, in stories, not feet.

Not taken into account: a home's total square footage, nor the number of people who live there.

So, under the city's formula, the owner of a relatively wide home would pay more for water than the owner of a home that's not as wide but is taller, has more people living there and more square footage.

One thing's the same whether you have a meter or not: Your sewer bill is 86 percent of what the city charges you for water.

Here are five examples of how homeowners in Chicago who don't have a water meter are paying more than neighbors who have bigger homes--with or without a water meter:

Example No. 1: Bigger house with meter pays less than neighbor with no meter.col1{width:190px;float:left;margin-right:10px;margin-bottom:5px;}.col2{width:190px;float:left;margin-bottom:5px;}.story_subhead{margin-top:5px;}

Owner: Michael DiFoggio

House size: 7,231 square feet, with indoor swimming pool

Lot size: 13,300 square feet

Neighborhood: Bridgeport

Water meter: yes

2009 water charges: $94.91 for 55,000 gallons

2009 sewer charges: $80.68

2009 total bill: $175.59, down 54 percent from previous year

2008 total bill: $378.90

Why so low: "Maybe it's because I don't live there that much," says DiFoggio, a plumbing contractor and developer in Bridgeport. "I divorced a few years ago. The kids are gone. I don't live there in the summer, hardly."

Owner: Anna Falco

House size: 1,271 square feet

Lot size: 3,125 square feet

Neighborhood: Bridgeport

Water meter: no

2009 water charges: $183.13 for unlimited gallons

2009 sewer charges: $156.30

2009 total bill: $339.43, up 11 percent

2008 total bill: $306.13

Here's what, how the city is expected to charge Falco for water this year:$175.94 because her home is between 24 and 27 feet wide.

$56.14 because her lot is less than 30 feet wide.

Plus $199.59--86 percent of those charges--for her sewer bill. Senior citizens like Falco normally don't have to pay for sewer charges, but she doesn't have a waiver from the city.

Example No. 2: Bigger house with meter pays less than neighbor with no meter

Owner: Ald. Edward M. Burke

House size: 5,619 square feet

Lot size: 5,656 square feet

Neighborhood: West Elsdon

Water meter: yes

2009 water charges: $233.82 for 164,560 gallons

2009 sewer charges: $198.74

2009 total bill: $432.56, a 20 percent decrease

2008 total bill: $542.85

Owner: Jose Santos Leanos

House size: 1,848 square feet

Lot size: 6,029 square feet

Neighborhood: West Elsdon

Water meter: no

2009 water charges: $399.39 for unlimited gallons

2009 sewer charges: $340.87

2009 total bill: $740.26, up 11 percent

2008 total bill: $667.62

What, how the city is expected to charge Leanos for water this year: $229.52 because his home is between 30 and 33 feet wide.

$79.33 because the width of his lot is between 30 and 50 feet.

$31.52 for a water connection in his garage.

Plus $292.72--86 percent of those charges--for his sewer bill.

Told that he pays more for water than Burke, who lives a block away, Leanos says: "It makes no sense. Why he pay less because he has a meter- I've gone to the city of Chicago two or three times and asked them why my bill is so high, and they tell me that's what I have to pay." Leanos says his water bill is more than the one he gets for his Little Village auto repair shop, which has a water meter.

Example No. 3: No meters, but smaller house pays the same as bigger one

Owner: Efrain Gutierrez

House size: 1,406 square feet

Lot size: 4,362 square feet

Neighborhood: Norwood Park West

Owner: Ronald Niego

House size: 2,402 square feet

Lot size: 7,350 square feet

Neighborhood: Edison Park

2009 water charges for Gutierrez and Niego: $219.09 for unlimited gallons

2009 sewer charges: $186.23

2009 total bill: $405.32, up 15.6 percent

2008 total bill: $350.57

These homes are the same width, but Niego's lot is 10 feet wider than the Gutierrez property. Still, these homes are treated the same under the formula the city uses to calculate water charges for homes without meters. Under the city ordinance, Niego should be extra for a second story, but the city water department isn't charging him for one.

What, how the city is expected to charge Gutierrez and Niego this year: $175.94 each because their homes are between 24 and 27 feet wide.

$79.33 each because the width of their lots is between 30 feet and 50 feet.

$219.53 --86 percent of those charges--for his sewer bill.

Example No. 4: Houses look similar, get the same water bill--but one is much bigger

Owner: Roger Casas

House size: 1,614 square feet

Lot size: 5,544 square feet

Neighborhood: Beverly

Owner: David Demy

House size: 2,511 square feet

Lot size: 5,544 square feet

Neighborhood: Beverly

2009 water charges for Casas and Demy: $298.27 for unlimited gallons

2009 sewer charges: $254.56

2009 total bill: $552.83

These homes look identical from the street, but Demy's house is larger. It has a two-story addition at the rear. That addition, though, has no impact on the water bill he gets from the city.

What, how the city is expected to charge them this year:

$206.97 each because the width of their homes is between 27 and 30 feet.

$79.33 each because their lots are between 30 feet and 50 feet wide.

$38.55 each for an additional story on their homes.

Plus $279.37 each--86 percent of those charges--for their sewer charge.

Example No. 5: No meters, but smaller house pays more

Owner: Gustavo Rangel

House size: 1,413 square feet

Lot size: 10,250 square feet

Neighborhood: Galewood

2009 water charges: $306.23 for unlimited gallons

2009 sewer charges: $260.30

2009 total bill: $566.53, up 15.6 percent

2008 total bill: $490.04

What, how the city is expected to charge Rangel this year: $277.51 because the width of his home is between 36 feet and 40 feet.

$79.33 because the width of his lot is between 30 feet and 50 feet.

Plus $306.88--86 percent of those charges--for his sewer charges.

Rangel has a much smaller home than his neighbor, former Ald. William Banks (36th). But under the formula the city uses to bill non-metered customers for water, Rangel gets the bigger bill because his house is wider--and width costs more than height.

Owner: William Banks, former Chicago alderman

House size: 2,379 square feet, with an in-ground swimming pool

Lot size: 10,250 square feet

Neighborhood: Galewood

2009 water charges: $231.60 for unlimited gallons

2009 sewer charges: $196.87

2009 total bill: $428.47, up 15.6 percent

2008 total bill: $370.59

What, how the city is expected to charge Banks this year: $151.95 because the width of his home is between 21 feet and 24 feet.

$79.33 because the width of his lot is between 30 feet and 50 feet.

$38.55 for an additional story

Plus $232.05--86 percent of those charges--for his sewer charges.

"I never thought anybody on my block paid more than I did," says Banks. "That doesn't make any sense. I thought, for non-metered accounts, you paid for square footage. I think it would be more (fair) by the entire square foot of the entire house, rather than the frontage."



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