Several faith leaders have expressed disapproval of the city’s graduated lifting of the water and sewerage fee exemption for non-profit organizations. They say it could devastate their church budgets– which have already dwindled due to lowered Sunday collections in the wake of the recession.
For years churches and other non-profit organizations in the city were exempt from paying a water bill. But as the recession socked the city and officials began looking for new money – and savings – they turned to reneging the exemption.
As part of the 2012 city budget, alderman approved a change to the municipal code that removed the full water and sewerage fees exemption and put in place new provisions that gave partial fee breaks that decrease over several years. Effective Jan. 1, 2012, the non-profit organizations received a 60 percent exemption. Next year it drops to a 40 percent cut and in 2014 the exemption drops to 20 percent. Each year going forward non-profits get a $1,000 break on sewerage fees.
Faith leaders like Rev. Michael Eaddy told the Chicago Citizen that churches use their own funds to pay for the social and community services they provide to public, including feeding events, after-school and child care programs and others. He said that when churches fund these programs, it frees up the city from having to foot the bill. Thus, the city should in turn, give churches full water and sewerage exemptions.
The West Side pastor is part of the Interfaith Coalition, a local group of three dozen multi-faith ministers who united to rally around this issue. The group has taken its lament to aldermen and to City Hall asking for a reversal of the exemption change.
For his own Peoples Church of the Harvest in the East Garfield Park community, Eaddy expects to pay as much as $9,000 this year in water and sewerage fees. Eaddy said the high bills that have accumulated since the full exemption was canceled in January will “jeopardize” churches from being able to offer social services.
“If the churches do not provide the services…we will have even more unsafe neighborhoods. We will have more unsafe youth. We will have more violence,” said Eaddy.
Eaddy said he understands the city’s cash crunch and his solution is for churches to be the only non-profits to be granted the water and sewerage fee exemption. To him, other organizations are most likely able to pay water and sewerage bills.
Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) told the Chicago Citizen that exempting only churches wasn’t fair and could be illegal.
“I understand the economic strain (lifting the exemption) is putting on all of us. Right now we’re looking at what can be done to either ease or remove the specific restriction,” he said. “All non-profits have to be treated equally. We can’t exempt just churches. That would not put the city on good grounds. It could be grounds for a lawsuit.”
Ald. Deborah Graham (29th) said with the number of local non-profits, the break on the water bill adds up to “a lot of money” that the city loses out on.
“We’re in a Catch 22. If we implement the waiver again, somebody’s got to pay for it,” she said. “I’m torn: I’m supportive. I understand churches do provide a lot of services to the community but at the same time (residents) are the city’s resources and the money has to come from somewhere.”
Ervin expects that the issue will be discussed in the City Council as aldermen pour over the mayor’s 2013 budget proposal.
By Rhonda Gillespie