CHICAGO (CBS) — Over the last year, Chicagoans have reached out to CBS 2 Investigators for help with inexplicable water bills.

The city’s victims range from a widow being charged five times what her neighbors pay for water to a Vietnam veteran who was charged for water he never used.

Now the city’s hosing a West Side church that never should have received a water bill.

“They are literally robbing the churches,” said Pastor Veronica Day.

Pastor Day leads Solid Rock Church of the Living God, which received a $6,257.59 water bill from the city in 2015. A significant sum for this small not-for-profit church.

“We have been harassed by the water company,” she said. “That’s why I called you all… for some help.”

This church means a lot to Pastor Day. She’s been a member since she was 11 years old. Her mother ministered here. She met her husband in the choir. And now, she leads the ministry.

“In this community, people need a lot, and I would like to do more, you know, but it takes finances,” she said.

She doesn’t have those finances, because she’s shelling out money for a bill the church should be legally exempt from paying.

In 2011, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the city could not afford to exempt not-for-profits and planned to incrementally charge them a greater percentage of their water usage each year.

According to this model, they had to pay 20 percent of their water bill in 2011, 40 percent in 2012, and 60 percent in 2013. Had the plan continued for two more years, by 2015, all not-for-profits would have paid 100 percent of their water usage.

The mayor’s decision robbed many NFP’s of crucial finances, which they needed to afford community services, so an amendment was made to the code in 2013.

Section 11-12-540 of Chicago’s municipal code now says that not-for-profits, like this Solid Rock Church, with less than $1 million in net assets, will be eligible for 100 percent exemption.

According to the 2014 financial form Pastor Day submitted when applying for the exemption, Solid Rock Church barely made $100,000.

To receive the full exemption, any nonmetered NFPs had to have a water meter installed and submit an exemption form. Solid Rock Church did both.

“We’ve been exempt from day one,” Pastor Day said.

The most peculiar part? Aside from the $6,000 bill she received immediately after the meter was installed, the church has since received complete exemption from their water bills. Their water charge for each billing cycle remains a static zero.

So for the last five years, the church has been slowly chipping away at this $6,000 bill.

CBS 2 first emailed the city about this account on Jan. 17. The city responded five and a half hours later saying, “Please note that we will be reaching out directly to the customer to discuss their billing issues.”

Not only did the city refuse to provide us with an explanation, but it also failed to contact the customer in a timely manner. After two more reminders from us and 18 days later, the city called Pastor Day for the first time.

“I haven’t reviewed the account thoroughly yet, ma’am,” the customer service representative told her over the phone.

 

Nearly three weeks after our initial inquiries and the city still had done no prior research, and even asked the customer for the most basic information, like her account number.

“They don’t even have a conscience,” Pastor Day said.

Before CBS 2 got involved, she made inquiries of her own to no avail.

“The principle of it all is how dare them give us an over $6,000 bill without an explanation,” she said.

She’s not the only customer denied an explanation.

“No explanation,” said Kathy Zook, whose inexplicable bill CBS 2 investigated in January. Zook, a widow who lives alone, was charged five times what her neighbors pay with no explanation at all.

After we pressed the city to re-examine her billing, she received a $2,200.46 credit.

But they are not the only Chicagoans who have been hosed.

Until our involvement, the city’s resolution was to place most of these accounts on payment plans – it had no desire to look into the complexities of each case.

“They said they would put me on a three-year payment plan,” Pastor Day said. “You know, as if I was buying a car.”

To date, Solid Rock Church has paid more than $5,000 towards the bill because it feared receiving additional late fees and penalties.

“We’ve been bullied by the water company,” Pastor Day said. “That’s the city of Chicago. They don’t care if you have a leg to stand on.”

Now Pastor Day is fighting for justice.

“I want every penny of it back,” she said. “I will not be satisfied until we get every penny that we paid.”

What the city doesn’t understand is that this wrong, antiquated, and maybe illegal billing process has caused immense hardship for so many people.

In this case, the city’s kept Pastor Day, in this West Side neighborhood, from helping her community.

“We can feed people, we can fix the roof, do some work around the church,” she said. “It can be used for a lot of good things.”

She also has a promise once she wins her fight with the city.

“Every penny we get back will go into this ministry and will be used for the betterment of the people in this community,” Day said.

Late Thursday night, CBS 2 learned the city offered a potential resolution. A refund, but with stipulations. Friday evening, the city provided a $4,300 credit and the following explanation:

“According to City records, 3710 W. Iowa has been receiving the not-for-profit exemption for water and sewer charges since 2014 which exempts 100% of their water charges and $1000 of their sewer charges per year. The property owner received a bill for $6,257.59 after a 2012 change to the municipal code which mandated that only metered properties were eligible for the charitable exemption. 3710 W. Iowa was nonmetered at the time of the change, and it remained ineligible for the exemption until 2014, when a meter was installed. This ineligible exemption status triggered a bill for the nonmetered charges. Since the water charges were issued, the City has been in contact with the customer to discuss the outstanding bill, including setting up a 36-month payment plan to bring the account into compliance. Further, during the time of the exemption change, the City conducted robust outreach to all non-profits that would be deemed ineligible – including letters and phone calls. Prior to CBS 2’s inquiry into this matter, the City had begun working with this charitable organization and this week issued a $4,386.61 credit to the account.”

Brad Edwards