Emanuel not inclined to go back to free water for non-profit groups

Clout Street

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Thursday that restoring free water service to churches and non-profit agencies as some aldermen suggest would reverse a campaign promise he’s fulfilled.

“I pledged in the campaign that we were not going to give away free water anymore to the cost of $20 million to the taxpayers,” he said. “I said that (had to) come to an end. They were getting something that the residents of the city of Chicago were not getting. So I said, ‘We’re not going to do that.’”

Nevertheless, the mayor said he has asked his staff to “study” a proposed ordinance signed by a majority of City Council members that again would require the city to provide free water to smaller non-profits that provide community services.

For decades, water was free to such groups, which also are exempt from property taxes and don’t pay the city for garbage hauling. The city started billing them for water this year, when Emanuel’s first budget went into effect.

“We had to make some decisions, because I didn’t think it was fair to the taxpayers of the city of Chicago and the residents to pay full freight, and then in addition to paying full freight, subsidize the non-profits, especially the hospitals, when they were paying pretty big salaries to people,” Emanuel said.

Non-profits with assets above $250 million, including large hospitals, now pay for their water. Those with assets below $250 million get a 60 percent discount. Next year, the discount will fall to 40 percent next, and in 2014 it will drop to 20 percent, where it will remain.

Under the ordinance proposed by Ald. Robert Fioretti, 2nd and Ald. Howard Brookins, 29th, free water service would be restored to smaller non-profits that provide “charitable, moral, health, education, safety or similar social services to the community.” In exchange, those groups would have to draw up water-conservation plans.

Although 29 of 50 aldermen signed onto the measure, passage is not assured. Other legislation will similar support has languished in committee for months because of mayoral opposition.

If the proposal were approved, it would blow a multi-million dollar hole in the city’s budget. When religious leaders last month brought their concerns to the Finance Committee one week before approval of the 2013 budget, aldermen expressed concern but ended up doing nothing.

The proposed ordinance has been assigned to the Budget Committee led by Ald. Carrie Austin, 34th, who is a staunch mayoral ally but also a strong supporter of churches.

Religious leaders have personally urged Emanuel to reconsider charging for water, saying the added burden could threaten the existence of their community programs aimed at stemming violence and other societal ills.

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