THURSDAY, SEPT. 22, 2011

FOLLOW-UP: Rahm Emanuel Delivers Payment Plan To Suburbs Facing Overdue Water Bills

The city of Chicago is owed $47 million in unpaid water bills. It’s a big number for a cash-strapped city. A Better Government Association study found those who owe much of that money might not be who you expect.

The BGA found that four other municipalities owe the city of Chicago more than $15 million.

Lake Michigan is Chicago’s crown jewel, but also a truly valuable asset – with its plentiful, potentially lucrative supply of water. Yet, for a city faced with serious economic challenges, it’s a natural resource we still provide to people who can’t or won’t pay for it.

“I’m sympathetic to these suburbs. They’re low income, some of their residents are struggling; but Chicago taxpayers are struggling too and it’s not fair for them to have to eat $15 million in unpaid water bills,” said BGA Executive Director Andy Shaw.

Harvey owes Chicago $6.2 million, Robbins owes $6.1 million, Dolton owes $1.7 million and Maywood owes $1.6 million.

The City says it’s “currently in communications with each of these municipalities, working on payment plans.”

Ald. Ed Burke (14th), who chairs the City Council Finance Committee, said “Just like Commonwealth Edison company owns the electric utility, we own the water utility. And it is not proper and it is not good business practice to allow that kind of debt to be out there uncollected.”

Harvey Mayor Eric Kellogg, through a spokeswoman describes “an ongoing fluid dialogue with the City of Chicago” over the outstanding bill. But the spokeswoman wouldn’t say where the homeowners’ water payments went.

Harvey homeowner Irma Calvert said, “If I don’t pay, every month, I get it cut off.”

But Harvey hasn’t been cut off despite owing Chicago more than $6 million for the water its residents have been supplied.

“When you get some of that $6 million, you get me some, because I need some money,” Calvert said.

Robbins Mayor Irene Brodie admits “diverting some of the water money for other government operations.”

Burke said, “That’s troubling that they’re collecting the water bill from their residents, but they’re not remitting it to the city.”

“It certainly isn’t an excuse if they’re wasting this money,” Shaw said. “If they don’t have it, that may be another story.

Shaw said Chicago needs to come up with a better way to compute, price and collect its water bills. For at least one alderman, it’s item number one on her response to the new Mayor’s request for ideas to help balance the budget.

Chicago bills nearly $500 million for Lake Michigan water. Between unpaid bills and free water for non-profits, we’re talking $65 million dollars. Those are big numbers.