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Updated 04/30/13 – 5:12 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) – Cardinal Francis George and dozens of other Chicago religious leaders were calling on city officials to reinstate free water service for churches and other non-profits.
WBBM Newsradio’s Bernie Tafoya reports the cardinal and other religious leaders held a news conference Tuesday morning in Bronzeville, saying that no longer getting free water service could force them to halt some services for the needy.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the City Council in 2011 approved cutting off free water and sewer service for non-profits, although smaller non-profit groups had their water and sewer fees phased in.
At St. Paul Church of God in Christ, elder Anthony Ford argued the charitable water bill exemption must be resumed in Chicago, or ministries to help the less fortunate will be cut.
“We ask the city of Chicago to consider the work that we do for the homeless, consider the work we do for those who are less,” Ford said.
CBS 2′s Derrick Blakley reports, in the Austin neighborhood, Christ Lutheran School has closed, because the water was turned off, because Christ Lutheran Church can’t pay the bill.
Rev. C.J. Wright said, “The school’s bill is around $24,000. The church’s bill was over $20,000.”
He said those bills have destroyed their budget.
Franciscan Outreach Association shelters, where more than 300 clients slept Monday night alone, face potential bills over $20,000 a year.
Executive director Diana Faust said, “If we had to cut another $20,000 to $25,000 out of our … budget, we’d have to lay off staff.”
Religious leaders said those kinds of consequences will be more widespread, unless the mayor reinstates free water for non-profits.
Franciscan Outreach uses 263,000 gallons of water a month to wash bed linens, provide showers for the homeless, and prepare meals. For them, it’s more than just tap water, it’s a lifeline.
“It’s pretty hard to get back into the mainstream society if you haven’t had a shower, haven’t had your clothes washed, or haven’t had breakfast or supper. These are basic services that we’re providing here,” Faust said.
The mayor now has offered a compromise, proposing the water bills for non-profits be based on the size of their assets; the more property they own, the higher rate they would pay for water.
The mayor’s plan would provide free water to non-profits with less than $1 million in net assets. Those with assets between $1 million and $250 million would get discounted water. Those with more than $250 million in assets would have to pay the same rate as homeowners and businesses.
Cardinal George said water bills for non-profits should be based on operating budgets, not assets.
“The lake is, after all, a gift from God. We feel sometimes maybe we should charge the city for using our water,” he joked.
Both sides are searching for a way to decide which charities should pay for water, and how much.