Still trying for water exemptions

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Archdiocese of Chicago is working with religious institutions and congregations of all stripes to convince a majority of the city’s 50 alderman to restore their religious exemption from paying city water fees.

The exemption was stripped during the budget process in November 2011.

The coalition testified during budget hearings this year, according to Jimmy Lago, the archdiocese’s chancellor, and told aldermen that it wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“If we don’t get it this year, we’ll come back next year,” Lago said. “And the year after that.”

At issue are fees that can easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars a year for large parishes with schools or those that provide social services, such as shelters or soup kitchens.

The leaders of religious groups from Buddhists to Zoroastrians are armed with a study that shows houses of worship are an economic and social boon to their communities. Partners for Sacred Spaces worked with the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice on a pilot study of 12 Philadelphia houses of worship in 2010, finding that each contributed an average of $4.3 million a year in economic value to their communities.

The group then embarked on a large study including 40 houses of worship in Chicago, Philadelphia and Fort Worth, Texas. Complete results are expected to be released next year, but preliminary findings on five houses of worship in Chicago show an average economic contribution similar to that in Philadelphia, $4.3 million. Of the group, St. Pius V Parish in Pilsen, the only Catholic parish included, had by far the biggest impact, at nearly $15 million a year.

The parish has large and active social service ministries, including those aimed at stopping domestic violence, at helping immigrants get proper documents and supporting people who are fighting substance abuse addiction. Its school has more than 200 students, and it is the site of more than 650 weddings, funerals, baptisms and quinceaneras each year, drawing more than 12,000 visitors to the neighborhood.

“We’re trying to persuade aldermen that as much as they are going to get from us in water fees, it’s a lot less than they would get from us in social services,” Lago said.

The economic impacts studied included things such as bringing visitors in, buying goods and services from local vendors, education and preventing crimes from occurring.

The group has a letter that it is asking pastors or other leaders to have their parishioners sign and send to their alderman while the leaders approach the aldermen one by one.

The coalition, which has the support of the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago and Interfaith Connect, decided to work on the grass-roots level and approach individual aldermen because “we think local aldermen have much more significant relationships with their local churches and religious institutions,” Lago said.

Overall, water fees are costing parishes and schools in Chicago an estimated $2.5 to $3 million this year. That figure does not count large social and service agencies such as Misericordia, which cares for people with developmental disabilities. Some small churches may use less than 1,000 gallons of water a year; larger churches may use more than a million gallons a year.