Chicago water hikes spur suburban revolt

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Chicago water hikes spur suburban revolt

By Phil Kadner pkadner@southtownstar.com April 14, 2014 9:10PM

 

Crestwood has been under scrutiny since 2009 when it was revealed that the village supplemented its drinking water supply from Lake Michigan with water from a contaminated well between 1985 and 2007, and then lied about it to regulators. | File photo

Updated: April 15, 2014 2:11AM

 

There is apparently no independent agency monitoring the skyrocketing cost of Chicago water in the suburbs.

While the Illinois Commerce Commission must approve rate increase requests by ComEd and Northern Illinois Gas, there is no entity with regulatory authority over the cost of Lake Michigan water from Chicago.

That’s become an issue in the suburbs, where Chicago water customers have seen the cost of water jump 25 percent in 2012 and 15 percent in every year since. There’s another 15 percent price hike scheduled for 2015.

A SouthtownStar story by my colleague Susan DeMar Lafferty on Monday revealed that Mokena Trustee Don Labriola has scheduled a public meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Pipefitters Local Training Center, 10850 W. 187th St., in hopes of forming a Suburban Water Task Force.

But it turns out a group by that name was formed some years ago by the West Central Municipal Conference, a group of mayors from 51 western Cook County and eastern DuPage County suburbs.

That task force eventually decided that state legislation was needed to monitor Chicago water rate increases. That bill, called the Water Rate Protection Act, is being sponsored in the Senate by state Sen. Steve Landek, D-Bridgeview.

Neil James, deputy director for the West Central Municipal Conference, said the organization’s mayors decided a law was needed after years of fruitless negotiations with Chicago water department officials.

But a similar bill went nowhere last year because, well, Chicago pretty much controls the Legislature. The House speaker is Michael Madigan and the Senate president is John Cullerton, both Chicago Democrats.

Labriola admitted to me that he was unaware of the proposed bill or the fact that there’s already a Suburban Water Task Force.

“But that really doesn’t matter because the fact is all the suburbs need to get together on this and formulate a strategy,” Labriola said. “I don’t think legislation is the way to go because we all know who controls things in Springfield.

“I have no objection to Chicago charging a fair price for its water to maintain the infrastructure and pay for labor,” he said. “But we know Chicago is facing a multibillion budget deficit brought on by a pension crisis. How do you know in future years Chicago won’t see water as a way to fill that budget hole?

“We’re talking about a 52 percent increase in the cost of water, and the question is, where is it going to go from here? Will it be another 5 percent or 7 percent in 2016? We need to have some input into the process, and right now we have none.”

Actually, Chicago’s lake water rate will rise to $3.82 per 1,000 gallons of water by 2015, up from $1.33 in 2005, which is an increase of far more than 52 percent. That’s because of the compounding impact of the price increases each year.

Chicago maintains that the price increases were needed to upgrade its water delivery infrastructure.

Those higher rates are going to be worse for communities served by Oak Lawn, which purchases Lake Michigan water from Chicago and pumps it on to towns such as Orland Park, Tinley Park, Mokena, New Lenox and Oak Forest.

Oak Lawn is in the process of improving its water distribution system, estimated to cost $185 million, which will double its capacity and create a back-up water main for the first time.

Larry Deetjen, Oak Lawn’s village manager, said he and representatives from suburbs served by the Oak Lawn system have met numerous times with Chicago officials to try to negotiate lower rates, but as in the case of the mayors from western Cook County, those meetings apparently went nowhere.

But Deetjen was quick to point out that the quality of Chicago water is second to none in the metropolitan area and lauded the city’s water filtration facilities.

He questioned suburbs that have launched negotiations with Hammond to purchase water and those such as Alsip and Blue Island that plan to form new governmental units to build their own water distribution systems.

“Illinois already has more government entities than any other state in the country,” Deetjen said. “I don’t think creating another layer of government is going to save money or help make government more responsive to the needs of local residents.”

As for buying lake water from Hammond, Deetjen questioned whether that city has the long-term capacity in place to meet future water needs and its ability to properly filter contaminants out of the water supply.

“What happens if Hammond needs to spend money to increase its capability to pump water?” he said. “Costs will go up. And if the suburbs in Illinois have any problems with water supply, who do they appeal to? They can’t go to the Illinois General Assembly. Do they go to Indianapolis? Is anyone in Indiana going to care if Illinois communities complain?”

Tinley Park Mayor Ed Zabrocki said officials from his suburb along with those of Orland Park, New Lenox, Oak Forest and Mokena have been meeting with Chicago officials for several years to discuss the rising cost of water.

“Where has Labriola been all of that time?” Zabrocki said. “That was the first thing I wondered when I saw the story in your newspaper.”

Labriola said that when he mentioned the idea of forming a Suburban Water Task Force at a Mokena Village Board meeting, no one said anything about ongoing negotiations with Chicago.

“It seems to me if there have been negotiations they haven’t gotten anywhere, so we need a new long term strategy to deal with the situation,” he said.

But apparently Labriola did not personally invite anyone to his meeting and is hoping the announcement in the newspaper alone will get people out.

As far as I can determine, the suburbs have no access to the books of Chicago’s water department and no ability to monitor how the money is spent.

The suburbs need to unify behind an oversight authority.

Source: Will County News

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