Religious leaders to ask city for free water for all non-profits

April 30, 2013 (CHICAGO)

They want the city to repeal an ordinance that makes churches and most non-profit groups pay for water. They say it is having a negative impact on the ways they serve the community.

Churches, hospitals, schools and other non-profit organizations in the City of Chicago used to be exempt from paying water and sewer fees. But, in 2011, Mayor Rahm Emanuel pulled the perk because of the city's budget crisis.

In a compromise, the mayor's office is giving non-profit groups a break depending on the size of their assets:

  • Less than $1 million in assets will be eligible for a 100-percent exemption from water payments;
  • 1 and $10 million in assets gets a 60-percent exemption;
  • $10 million to $250 million in assets gets a 25-percent exemption;
  • Any not-for-profit with assets over $250 million is not eligible for an exemption.

At Franciscan House on the West Side, which provides beds and warm showers for the needy, a $25,000 water bill is threatening to send other programs down the drain.

"We're already struggling to raise the money that we need just to keep our programs open, and to add another bill on top of that? That would be very difficult for us," said Diana Faust, Franciscan executive director.

Paying for water, say officials, would mean cutbacks in counseling and advising services for those trying to start a new life.

"Without these contacts, some of our people would literally die on the streets," said Faust.

So Tuesday, a coalition of religious leaders, including Francis Cardinal George, called on the city to reverse its policy requiring non-profits to pay for water.

"Of course we should help to contribute to seeing the city does work, but there are many ways to contribute besides money," said Francis Cardinal George.

The church that runs Christ Lutheran School on the West Side says its water was shut off when it couldn't pay its bill.

"We can't do our ministry," said Pastor C. J. Wright. "We can't open our school up. We can't do anything. We can't do anything without water."

"Allowing churches to have a water-fee waiver is not a handout," said Jim Lago, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago. "We're not talking about deadbeats."

A compromise proposed by Mayor Emanuel This week would provide a tiered system, exempting non-profits with assets of less than $1 million, but requiring larger non-profits to pay at least a portion of the bill.

Clergy members say the mayor's proposal doesn't provide enough relief, but the executive director of the Illinois Policy Institute, itself a non-profit, says the city shouldn't grant special treatment to select groups.

"Once you start dipping into moral comparisons -- this charity is more moral than that charity -- I think that's when we invite disaster and too much of the insider game," said Illinois Policy Institute's John Tillman.

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