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Emanuel’s 2012 Budget Would Raise Water Fees

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Chicago residents would see an increase in their water bill next year under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2012 budget proposal unveiled Wednesday.

The water and sewer fee increase – which would equal up to “five cups of coffee from Dunkin Donuts per month,” Emanuel said – is not aimed to reduce the city’s current $635 million shortfall, because the mayor plans to use the money to revamp Chicago’s aging water-line infrastructure.

The water and sewer fees would amount to about $120 annually for the average household.

“It has nothing to do with our deficit, but it has everything to do with Chicago’s future,” he said during his first budget speech at City Hall.

“We are already paying the price” with flooded streets, basements and sinkholes when it rains, the mayor said.

“We have about 1,000 miles of water pipes that are 100-years-old, or older,” Emanuel said as aldermen and a packed council chambers looked on. “Despite our budget problems, we cannot delay the replacement any longer.”

After Emanuel’s address, Ald. John Arena (45th) recalled a motorist falling into a car-sized sinkhole at Foster and Elston avenues in August.

“That was in the heart of my ward,” Arena said. “Making sure our infrastructure is safe and secure is definitely something we have to deal with, and I encourage that.”

Chicago residents currently pay the lowest price for water of any big city in America, Emanuel said.

“Even with this proposed plan, Chicago (water and sewer) rates will remain among the cheapest in the great-lakes region,” he said.

Residents’ bills will be even less – possibly cheaper than they currently pay – if they have a water meter installed, Emanuel said. The city’s free water meters – under the MeterSave program – allow residents to pay for their measured water consumption rather than an estimated rate.

Ald. Deborah Graham (29th) said she pays a “cheap water bill” because she has one of the city’s free water meters installed at her home.

“At the time I got the meter, people were saying we were going to pay more, so I bit the bullet and got the meter,” Graham said after the meeting.

“It turned out to be a really good idea,” she said.

Ald. Patrick O’Connor (40th) said the mayor’s proposed water-pipe revamp will not come without controversy. The extra money that will go into the water fund will not reduce the city’s shortfall, he said, because it’s being applied instead to preventive maintenance.

“If we are not going to privatize this asset, then we have to make it worth owning, and we have to make sure it works,”  O’Connor said.

Ald. James Balcer (11th), a member of the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection, said the city has to re-do the sewer lines and water system.

“As the mayor said, (the pipes) are 100 years old. We have to re-do that – that is a must.”

Ald. John Pope (10th) said increased water fees are a “great idea” because the current system is outdated and antiquated.

“I have experienced flooding in my home, so a modest increase, and I don’t know what that represents, would be well worth it,” he said.

Pope said the city should also “shut off the spigot” to suburban communities that receive water from Chicago but are behind in paying the bill.

“The free ride is over – especially for the suburbs – if they are not paying what is owed to us,” Pope said.

Laurence Msall, president of The Civic Federation, said the mayor’s budget proposal is “very positive.”

“We are far from out of the woods financially, but this is definitely pointing the . . . city of Chicago’s financial house in a much better direction,” Msall said.

He said increasing water fees and revamping the infrastructure is an ongoing issue that the Civic Federation has advocated.

“We have 100 year-old-water lines that need to be replaced.”

Emanuel is also planning to replace sewer lines, Msall said.

Other proposed fees and cuts included in Emanuel’s plan, which if approved by the city council, will take effect Jan. 1, would save $417 million and reduce the city’s current deficit by two-thirds, the mayor said.

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