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Chicago's water-billing mess leaves many soaked

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The water bill with a meter is $175. 59 for this 7,231-square-foot home with an indoor swimming pool in Bridgeport. The water bill with nometer is $339.43 for this 1,271-square-foot bungalow (inset) across the street where only one person lives.

Last year, 68-year-old Anna Falco paid the City of Chicago $339.43 for water and sewer service for her home, a one-story bungalow in Bridgeport.

Just across the street, her neighbor, plumbing contractor Michael DiFoggio, paid only $175.59 -- a little over half as much -- even though his 7,231-square-foot home, complete with an indoor swimming pool, is five times the size of Falco's.

"I don't understand why my bill is bigger than his," said Falco. "He's got a bigger house. He's got a pool."

DiFoggio also has something else -- a water meter.

Falco does not. If she did, she would almost certainly pay less than she does now.

In Chicago, 71 percent of single-family homes, two-flats and other residential properties aren't charged for water on the basis of how much they actually use. Instead, the city calculates their water bills using a flawed, century-old formula that's based largely on the widths of their buildings and lots.

So Falco, who lives alone, and many of those 313,993 other homeowners without meters appear to be paying too much for water. And City Hall knows it.

For years, Mayor Daley has maintained that non-metered houses would get less-expensive water bills if they had meters. He's set up a program so they can volunteer to have meters put in their homes -- at city expense. He's even giving a seven-year guarantee that they won't pay more than they do now.

But there have been few takers. Only 2 percent of eligible households -- about 7,000 -- have signed up for free meters since the program began in March 2009. And the city has installed only 2,500 of the devices.

Many Chicagoans don't believe the meters will lower their water bills, thinking it's cheaper not to have one. But few realize just how unfair the city's water-billing system is.

In a first-of-its-kind investigation, the Chicago Sun-Times found:

* The owners of smaller homes without meters often pay more for water than people who live in much-larger homes, whether the bigger homes have a meter or not.

*Empty-nesters, the elderly and single people living in non-metered homes are the most likely to be paying too much for water. It's because their bills are based on the sizes of their homes, not the number of people living there.

Â*All commercial customers -- businesses and many condo buildings -- are supposed to have water meters, but 520 don't. Those customers are billed at a flat rate, like non-metered homeowners. Formerly among them: Mario's Italian Lemonade, a popular summertime refreshment stand in Little Italy, which had been operating for years without a water meter. Mario's got one in April 2009.

*Some people aren't paying at all. Dozens of homeowners and businesses -- including a gas station and a fast-food restaurant -- have gone as long as 10 years without getting water bills, records show. The city has caught many of these customers. But the Sun-Times found others who weren't paying -- including a Chinatown industrial building whose owner has since been sent a bill for more than $31,000. Many of those customers were missing from a database of water accounts the city provided to the Sun-Times under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. A spot check of several city neighborhoods found homes, both new and old, that weren't included in those billing records. The missing accounts included a 121-year-old home in Bridgeport that a politically connected family has owned for more than 40 years. When Sun-Times reporters asked about this property, city officials produced records to show the family had paid its water bills. In other cases, city officials back-billed customers, and, in some cases, had water meters installed at the property.

*Others are being incorrectly billed. For example, the water bill for Cook County Judge Maura Slattery Boyle's home has been based on the width of her home, records show. Under city ordinance, the judge also should have been charged for the width of her lot and her home's second story -- but wasn't. As a result, she saved about $150 last year. Slattery said, "I paid the bill they sent me." The city says it's now reviewing her account.

*The pain only gets worse for non-metered customers every time the city raises water rates. Since January 2008, the mayor and City Council have raised water rates three times -- by 15 percent in 2008, another 15 percent last year and 14 percent this year. People with meters can use less water to save money. The rate hikes hit non-metered customers harder because they are already paying more than they need to -- and there's nothing they can do to lower their bill.

"These folks are screwed, essentially,'' said Ald. Patrick O'Connor (40th), the mayor's floor leader in the City Council.

O'Connor, who has a water meter at his home, and several other aldermen said they were unaware of the flaws in the city's water-billing system.

"I don't think they've ever presented to the Council that, 'We're being unfair to your constituents,' " O'Connor said. "It's hugely flawed."

Sitting on one of the largest fresh bodies of water in the world, Chicagoans long have been used to cheap water. City residents have been paying for water since 1873, according to the city's Water Department. But the water's been so cheap, there's been little reason to pay attention to how much people used.

Under pressure from other Great Lakes states and Canada, the city has encouraged all its residents to install meters in the name of conservation. The city requires water meters in all homes built or significantly rehabilitated since 1984.

But the mayor and aldermen haven't mandated that all homeowners install water meters, fearing a backlash from voters.

"It was the mayor's base, and nobody wanted to ruffle the . . . Northwest and Southwest Sides," said a former top city official. "There has been this misconception that, if you get a meter, you will pay more . . . so they went through the volunteer route. And that hasn't gone over well."

But the Daley administration said the program is working well, noting that all of the 2,500 homeowners who volunteered for meters "are on track to significant savings.'' As far as the seven-year guarantee against higher water bills, the city has had to make good on it just 12 times, at a total cost of $3,894.

Those with meters pay $2.01 for every thousand gallons of water -- one of the lowest rates in the nation.

City officials say they can install up to 15,000 meters year. At that rate, though, it would take 20 years to put a meter in every home -- if everybody wanted one.

"If the answer is everybody get a meter,'' O'Connor said, "they don't have the capacity to get everybody a meter."


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