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New water and sewage tax adds to Chicagoans’ woes

Mayor Rahm Emanuel at last Wednesday’s city council meeting

A water and tax increase approved by the City Council last Wednesday is just one of many fiscally irresponsible initiatives needed to pay for the city’s mismanagement and corruption, according to public policy advocates who spoke at City Hall.

In addition to an increase in property taxes as prescribed by Chicago Public Schools’ recently approved budget, Chicagoans will also begin paying a tax on water and sewage under the ordinance approved last Wednesday. The tax will be deposited into the pension fund for the city’s municipal workers with the intention of moving the fund from insolvency to solvency, according to Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

“Starting in 2017, residents and businesses will pay a rate of $0.59 per 1,000 gallons based on their water and sewer usage,” read a press release from the office of the mayor. By 2021, the tax will have reached its cap at a rate of $2.51 per 1,000 gallons of water and sewage use.

“Today, we took a step forward,” said Emanuel, referring to the council’s 40-10 vote in favor of the new tax. Ald. Burke (14th), chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Finance, said that gradually increasing utility costs would make the most sense in seeking to pay off worker pensions.

“We had to do the responsible thing,” said Ald. Moore (49th), one of the 40 who voted in support of the tax. With this tax included, Moore said, water fees for the city will still be lower than most suburban communities. Insisting that the council faced limited options in the matter, Moore said, “I don’t discount the burden on the residents.”

Opponents of the water and sewage tax said it would be unfair to levy yet another tax on Chicago’s citizens. Among those were Tom Tresser, Hilary Denk and Amara Enyia, co-authors of the book “Chicago Is Not Broke: Funding the City We Deserve.” Together with members of the League of Women Voters, the authors and advocates said that the city’s debt could more fairly be handled by way of a progressive tax, rather than regressive taxes.

the authors of "Chicago Is Not Broke!" with members of the League of Women Voters
the authors of “Chicago Is Not Broke!” with members of the League of Women Voters

Regressive taxation, like the new water tax and recently increased garbage fees, often weigh on the elderly and the poor disproportionality, Enyia said.

Denk, contributing author and board member for the League of Women Voters, said progress can be made “by enacting smart and fair fiscal policies.” In the book, Denk and other writers outline both the ways in which city officials have mismanaged citizens’ money and remedies that can be used to rectify the issue. Among those smart and fair fiscal policies mentioned were use of a public bank and the implementation of a progressive tax.

Contributors to the book and members of the league want aldermen to use the book as a point of conversation to combat “the scarcity narrative that’s really prevailed in the city,” Enyia said.

Members of other community organizations at the meeting Wednesday were vocal in their opposition of the new tax. Protesters in the lobby were more than audible during the first half of the meeting, often distracting those in attendance. “No justice, no peace,” chants caused a stir, followed by a demand that they be let into the meeting.

Activists from Faith in Action took action after the official passing of the water and sewage tax by chanting “Chatter chatter doesn’t matter, give this plan some teeth.” The group left the meeting abruptly in protest of police brutality, citing a lack of results from the Independent Police Review Authority and a lack of hope in the agency that will soon replace it.

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