Chicago Tonight, WTTW: Water Wars

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By Paris Schutz

A movement is afoot in Chicago that has united almost all major faiths around what they see as an urgent matter. Religious leaders say if action isn’t taken soon, it could jeopardize the future of their institutions. The issue? Water — and whether or not they should be paying for it.

Water should be viewed as a form of charity. So say officials at the Franciscan Outreach Center, a 300-bed homeless shelter on the west side.

“The people that we serve need to take a shower,” said Diana Faust, executive director of the center. “They don’t have a home. Can you imagine if you were at your home and you didn’t have a shower? That’s what we provide here for people.”

The Outreach Center also uses water to do laundry and to cook residents’ meals. For years, the center, along with every other nonprofit in the city, received free water. That practice came to an end last year when Mayor Rahm Emanuel and City Council decided that the city could no longer afford the giveaway.

“I made my decision with what I felt was in the interest of the entire city,” said Emanuel. “And I did it in a way that differentiated between big institutions and small institutions.”

In 2012, the new law forced large nonprofits with revenue over $250 million to start paying their entire water bills immediately. Smaller nonprofits like the Outreach Center were granted waivers to phase in the costs. This year, they are responsible for 40 percent of their bill, and will eventually have to pick up no more than 80 percent.

Faust estimates that will cost her organization $150,000 a year and could jeopardize its future.

“If we can’t pay our bills, we have to start cutting staff and cutting programs,” she said. “Every time we cut a case manager, that’s another 30 or 40 people that aren’t able to get housing.”

Jimmy Lago is the chancellor of the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago. He says the free water was always a trade-off for the benefits provided to the city from private and religious nonprofits.

“For years and decades, as I said, the city has understood that completely,” he said. “That’s gone now.”

Lago says the Archdiocese will eventually shell out $2 to $3 million to pay its collective water bills for schools, churches and social service agencies.

“Adding a $20,000 water bill or a $50,000 water bill, or whatever it is, to some of these inner city schools especially and elsewhere, could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” he said.

Elder Kevin Anthony Ford, a south side pastor, heads up an Interfaith Coalition to restore free water.

“We started with the Archdiocese, the Church of God in Christ, the Baptists, the Lutherans, and many others; Muslims, and we’ve just recently been proud to bring on our Jewish brothers and sisters,” he said.

Their goal is to persuade the mayor to support a new ordinance that would give free water to all charitable nonprofits with revenues below $250 million. The ordinance would exclude most of the city’s major hospitals and museums.

Gary Johnson is the head of Museums in the Park, a coalition that includes all of Chicago’s major lakefront museums. He says museums enjoyed the exemption for years, but accept the principle that they should pay for their water bills.

“Basically, as a group, we understand that as part of our partnership with the city and the Chicago Park District, we’re going to be treated like everyone else,” he said.

But religious leaders like Ford say they will continue to lobby City Hall.

The water exemption ordinance has the written support of a majority of City Council. However, it’s currently sitting in the Council’s Budget Committee. That committee’s chair, Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), says she’s not yet ready to call the ordinance for a vote.

Austin says she has persuaded the city’s budget director, Alexandra Holt, to find a way to accommodate religious leaders without hurting the city’s finances.

“I have to allow her an opportunity to do that, not just say let’s exempt the churches again because they demand it,” she said. “There has to be a way where we can plug that gap in order to make it viable for the citizens of Chicago.”

Religious leaders say they’ve been contacted by the mayor’s office to negotiate rates. But the mayor, flanked by clergy members at a recent press event, said he stands firm behind the decision to charge nonprofits for water.

“It’s a set of choices, a set of values,” said Emanuel. “We were giving away $20 million of free water for places like Northwestern and University of Chicago hospitals.”

But Elder Ford says his members can call on a higher power.

“We’re asking that the Lord touches the heart of our mayor and elected officials so that they see the value of what we do,” he said.

The sponsors of the ordinance that would restore free water to certain religious and charitable nonprofits are the Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) and Ald. Howard Brookins (21st).

Contact your alderman to tell them what you think.