More than 100 religious leaders and a handful of aldermen today called for a repeal of the water fee imposed on non-profits by the city last year.
"The lake is a gift from God," said Cardinal Francis George said.
"We feel sometimes we should charge the city for using our water," he later joshed.
On Sunday, city officials said they expect to introduce a new ordinance next week proposing that nonprofits with net assets of less than $1 million would once again qualify for 100 percent exemption from water payments.
The proposal states that the more assets an organization has, the less exempt from water fees it would be. The proposal offers no exemption for churches and charities with net assets of more than $250 million.
"What turned the table was the fact that the mayor came to know that a lot of these religious groups, as well as these nonprofits, offer critical human services that we as the city may not offer," said Ald. Carrie Austin, 34th. "They go beyond what it is that we supply them with. To cut them off where they would have to pay an enormous amount of a bill, then we lose. Where we may not be able to reach those citizens as a city, the nonprofits do."
Religious leaders said they have been cajoling Austin for eight months, trying to persuade her to allow an already amended ordinance about nonprofits' water bills sponsored by Ald. Howard Brookins, 21st, and Bob Fioretti, 2nd, but lodged in the budget committee, to reach the city council for a vote.
Jimmy Lago, chancellor of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago and co-chairman of an interfaith coalition to reverse the water fees, said the proposal came as a surprise because no one from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office had contacted the coalition to discuss the potential impact of a revised policy.
"We've got a lot of questions about what this means," Lago said. "If they think this is a real solution, we'd love to make sure it really is. If they can explain to us what it means, I'm fine with that."
The proposal grants no relief to museums, which would continue to receive a 20 percent exemption regardless of their net assets. Hospitals' exemptions would be based on their net assets, with a minimum exemption of 25 percent, according to the compromise.
About 4,000 eligible nonprofits began receiving bills for 40 percent of their water fees last year. In January, they began receiving bills for 60 percent of their water use. If the proposed changes do not go through, all nonprofits would be charged for 80 percent of their water use in 2014 and beyond.
Late last year, religious leaders warned the city's 50 aldermen in a letter that the water fee program posed a dire threat to churches and the social programs they offer in their communities. That letter, signed by 46 leaders including Cardinal George, argued that the water fee is a shortsighted effort to generate revenue that could backfire in the long run.