City water fees could threaten parishes, schools

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, November 20, 2011

The clock appears to be ticking on the longtime practice of Chicago giving nonprofits — including Catholic parishes, schools and other institutions — a pass on water and sewer fees.

The change could cause problems for many parishes that already are struggling to make ends meet, said Jimmy Lago, the archdiocese’s chancellor.

According to written testimony that Lago presented to the city council, the archdiocese has 643 water accounts for parishes, schools and other facilities, and the fees would amount to a little more than $2.1 million.

There are about 200 parishes in the city limits, Lago said, with some having more than one water account; looked at that way, parishes would be on the hook for an average of about $10,000 a year, with smaller parishes paying less and larger parishes paying more.

“With the mayor talking about raising water fees, too, it could be even more than that,” Lago said.

Misericordia Heart of Mercy Home, home to more than 600 children and adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities, estimates its water bill would be more than $500,000 a year.

$635 million gap

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s proposed 2012 budget originally called for the city to collect water and sewer fees from all non-profits beginning next year as one of several steps to close a $635 million budget gap. On Nov. 5, the chairman of the city council’s budget committee, Ald. Carrie Austin, announced that the city would adjust the plan to phase in water and sewer fees for non-profits with assets of less than $250 million over three years.

Such groups would get a 60 percent discount in 2012, a 40 percent discount in 2013 and a 20 percent discount in subsequent years. The city would recoup the money it loses on the discounts with planned increase in the water rates charged to everyone.

The city council was expected to vote on the budget — with the adjustments —Nov. 16.

The amount the city can recoup, especially from Catholic parishes and schools, pales in comparison to the dollar value of services the church provides to the city, Lago said. If all the Catholic school students in Chicago were to attend Chicago Public Schools, it would cost more than $650 million to educate them, he said, and the archdiocese provides more than $30 million a year in subsidies to needy parishes and schools.

“Parishes also provide gang intervention services, food pantries and feeding centers, social ministry and stability to neighborhoods, the value of which is incalculable,” Lago said in his written testimony. “Recent research from the University of Pennsylvania, in conjunction with the international preservation group, Partners in Sacred Places, shows that crime rates are lower when religious institutions are active in the area; and business stability indexes climb as well.”

For some parishes, the new fees could eat up as much as 20 percent of their revenue, Lago said.

Parishes respond

Father Elmer Romero, pastor of St. Mark Parish, 1048 N. Campbell, said he doesn’t know how much water will cost his parish, but he knows where the money will have to come from.

“It’s the money we are already using to serve our parishioners and the poor and the needy,” Romero said.

The water fees were a hot topic at his deanery meeting Nov. 14, Romero said, because all the parishes are in the same boat.

“We save so much and do so much for the city,” he said. “If we keep praying and raise our voices together, maybe the mayor will change his mind.”

Members of many parishes have signed petitions and written letters asking the city council to reconsider.

Benedictine Father Ed Linton, pastor of St. James Parish on Wabash Avenue, wrote a letter to Emmanuel, decrying the tone of the mayor’s budget message, which he said lumped non-profits who provide essential services to city residents to “deadbeats” who cheat the city out of money.

“It is unsettling that you accuse non-profits as not having ‘paid their fair share,’” Linton wrote. “It is disturbing that you believe nonprofits are on a ‘free ride.’”

Linton went on to say that he understands that the city had to take drastic steps to balance its budget and that most non-profits, who are committed to the city and its residents, would find a way to make the payments, but he asked for time to adjust.

“Please be slow with your insistence that non-profits pay for water,” he said.

By the numbers

  • 183: Number of Catholic parishes in the city of Chicago
  • 10: Number of Catholic shrines, oratories and missions (not housed in another Catholic institution) in Chicago
  • 643: Number of Chicago water accounts held by institutions of the Archdiocese of Chicago
  • $2.1 million: Estimated annual charges for those accounts
  • $635 million: City of Chicago budget shortfall
  • Proposal on the table: Non-profits with less than $250 million in assets would pay water and sewer fees discounted by 60 percent in 2012, discounted by 40 percent in 2013 and discounted by 20 percent in 2014 nd in subsequent years.