Churches Worry that End of Free City Water Will Force Other Cuts

Churches claiming to provide a safety net of social services to needy Chicagoans pleaded with the City Council Wednesday to restore their free water perk.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel campaigned on a promise to turn off the free water spigot to hospitals, churches, universities and other nonprofits to usher in an era of shared sacrifice needed to confront the city’s structural deficit.

To address aldermanic concerns about struggling parish churches, the mayor subsequently agreed to soften the blow — by offering a 60 percent water discount in 2012, 40 percent in 2013 and 20 percent in 2014 and beyond.

Apparently, the phased out discount was not enough.

On Wednesday, Archdiocese of Chicago Chancellor Jimmy Lago appeared before the Budget Committee to plead for relief.

He argued that the phase-out of the water waiver would cost Catholic churches $2.5 million a year, forcing them to reduce the safety net of overnights shelters, after school programs and other social services they provide to needy Chicagoans.

“If we’re starting to add $60,000 or $70,000 to those budgets, which already run a deficit, that is something that may impact the ability of a [Catholic] school to remain open,” Lago said.

He added, “If we have to make some cutbacks…in terms of beat patrol having an outreach for free in one of our churches — if we can’t keep the gym open at night to keep kids off the street — that’s a quantifiable impact to the city.”

Elder Kevin Anthony Ford, director of the St. Paul Church of God in Christ, said churches don’t consider themselves a “charity case.” They “provide a service,” he said.

“No one in Chicago does what we do with fallen humanity. We stand in the gap before persons lose it all. And that needs to be recognized,” Ford said.

“We’re asking for reasonable accommodations to help us help brothers and sisters who have fallen on hard times who might not have a home, cannot eat, might not have shelter.”

Aldermen from across the city sympathized with the churches’ plea, as they did last year when they ended the lucrative perk to save the city $18 million-a-year.

But they’re not sure how to replace the money or how to carve out a hardship exemption for struggling churches without restoring free water to Catholic universities like DePaul and Loyola that charge students more than $40,000 and can afford to pay their water bills.

Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee, asked Budget Director Alex Holt to explore the possibility of re-financing bonds issued to rebuild Chicago’s crumbling water and sewer system and using the savings to give grants to struggling churches.

But that approach is also problematic.

“What’s to prevent a larger non-profit with a better balance sheet than the city from saying, ‘Where’s mine?’ ” said downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd).



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