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Editorial: Turn off the spigot of free water

Francis Cardinal George speaking Interfaith CoalitiRestore Water Fee Exemptipress conference St. Paul Church God Christ 4526 S. Wabash St.

Francis Cardinal George speaking at the Interfaith Coalition to Restore the Water Fee Exemption press conference at the St. Paul Church of God in Christ, 4526 S. Wabash St. Tuesday, April 30, 2013 | Brian Jackson~Sun Times

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Updated: June 6, 2013 6:34AM

Nobody likes a hit to the bottom line, especially nonprofits these days, when it’s hard to stay out of the red.

But at a time when almost everyone’s bottom line is stressed, it’s hard to justify free city water for the largest nonprofits.

The city has a long history of piping free water to churches, hospitals and others. But as everyone’s water bills have soared to pay for upgrading the system, Mayor Rahm Emanuel says the city no longer can afford to give the $20-million-a-year perk.

To his credit, Emanuel has made concessions, including phasing in the increases in water bills. He also has agreed to give free water to organizations with net assets of less than $1 million and discounts to nonprofits with up to $250 million in assets. But there will be no exemption for those with over $250 million in assets. That’s fair.

Still, on Tuesday, more than 100 religious leaders and some aldermen called for a repeal of an ordinance that will require larger nonprofits to pay for water. Cardinal Francis George pointed out that nonprofits save the city money by reducing crime and providing social services. The Archdiocese of Chicago has said phasing out free water would cost it $2.5 million a year, forcing it to close schools and trim overnight shelters, after-school programs and other services.

Yes, nonprofits aren’t the only ones getting breaks. Clout-heavy firms get fat city contracts, and private businesses seek tax breaks and subsidies of their own, arguing those, too, will benefit the city. And yes, Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th) was out of line Wednesday when he said the church “ought to satisfy their own problems . . . and stop talking about free water.”

But any fee or tax break just shifts the costs to others. The city can’t afford to offer free water to all nonprofits anymore.

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