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Charities drowning in city water fees 

Mayor Emanuel sticks it to the poor to collect a few million bucks a year.

Diana Faust at Franciscan Outreach homeless shelter

Diana Faust at Franciscan Outreach homeless shelter

Alison Green

For the last 50 years, Franciscan Outreach has been running a west-side shelter that offers homeless men and women showers, food, and a place to rest. The shelter's 260 beds are filled pretty much every night.

Unfortunately, Mayor Emanuel seems determined to put the shelter out of business.

Nothing personal, of course. In fact, the Franciscans are just one of many charities that have been struggling to balance their books since last year, when the mayor ended the city's longtime policy of exempting nonprofits from water fees.

In this case, the Franciscans' latest water bill is forcing them to consider laying off staff and cutting programs, if they don't have to close their doors altogether.

"We're looking at a $150,000 bill," says Diana Faust, executive director of Franciscan Outreach. "That will kill us. We don't have that kind of money."

Welcome, my friends, to the latest political scuffle of Mayor Emanuel's reign. Trust me, this is going to reverberate awhile.

As if the mayor doesn't have enough to worry about, having inflamed teachers, parents, and students with the threat of closing a quarter of the city's grammar schools. Yet in the name of collecting what's estimated to be a few million bucks a year, the mayor is sticking it to the poor.

"This impacts everybody," says elder Kevin Ford, director of Saint Paul Church of God in Christ, on the south side. "We're talking shelters, domestic violence clinics, day care, after-school programs—everybody."

At issue is the water bill exemption that Mayor Daley and the City Council routinely handed out to nonprofits for as long as anyone can remember.

As a candidate, Emanuel—looking for ways to distinguish himself from Daley—pledged to get rid of the exemption on the grounds that the city couldn't afford it. He made good on that promise in his first budget, which was unanimously adopted by aldermen in November 2011.

The mayor claimed getting rid of the exemption would bring in about $20 million a year.

Furthermore, he said, he was protecting most nonprofits by phasing in the water bills. In 2012, for instance, they would pay only 40 percent of their bill. This year it's 60 percent. Starting next year it'll be 80 percent.

There was no debate, no discussion, no attempt to ask—much less answer—how much would actually be saved if places like shelters closed as a result of the bills.

"We subsidize the city with our programs," says Ford. "If we don't operate a food pantry or a shelter, who will?"

Good question. As Ford points out, it's one thing to eliminate the exemption for the "big boys"—major institutions like Northwestern University or the University of Chicago. It's something else to go after the Outreach. So we don't know how much of that $20 million—if that number is even accurate—comes from whom.

Furthermore, many shelters and social service agencies get operational money from the city. So if the city jacks up the water bills, the shelters will effectively be taking from the city to pay the city.

And if they go out of business, the city will suddenly find itself having to spend more to serve the poor.

Unless Mayor Emanuel decides to get Chicago out of the business of serving the poor, much as he's getting out of the business of educating them.

Sorry, Mr. Mayor—that was too easy. So please show me I'm wrong.

In any event, you'd think these are precisely the kinds of questions an enlightened City Council would want answered before doing something rash, like voting unanimously in favor of whatever half-baked idea pops out of the mayor's mind.

You know, it reminds me of the parking meter deal. Only in that case, our aldermen mindlessly sold off a valuable asset for much less than it was worth in order to benefit a consortium of really rich people.

And in this instance, they mindlessly decided to shake some change loose from the little guys.

On both occasions, as on so many others, they simply did what they were told. Or, as Elder Ford puts it: "They eliminated the water fee exemption faster than Mayor Daley closed Meigs Field."

Over the last few months, the nonprofits have started to counterattack. In December they got their chief council ally—Second Ward alderman Robert Fioretti—to introduce an amendment that would restore the exemption for nonprofits that provide "charitable, moral, health, education, safety or similar social services to the community."

In addition, the proposed amendment "shall not apply to any nonprofit organization that had net assets or fund balances of $250 million."

So far Fioretti has rounded up 28 other aldermen to sign on. That means it has three more supporters than it needs to pass.

If only City Council math were so easy.

The matter's been sent to the budget committee, which is chaired by Alderman Carrie Austin, one of the mayor's most dependable supporters.

Austin did not return calls for comment. But she's told backers of the amendment that she has no intention of giving it a hearing or vote any time soon.

There are a couple ways to get the legislation out of the budget committee over Austin's opposition. The fastest is to convince Mayor Emanuel to order Austin to hold a hearing.

That doesn't look like it's going to happen anytime soon. At a recent fund-raiser for Misericordia, a residential center for disabled adults and children, the mayor made light of the matter. He brought a bottle of water, which he gave to Sister Rosemary Connelly, Misericordia's executive director and one of the most vocal critics of the exemption change.

The mayor's press people aren't talking about the issue now. But the mayor has publicly stated that he thinks the nonprofits—especially well-connected ones like Misericordia—are more than capable of holding fund-raisers to cover the cost of their water bills.

So unless the mayor has a change of heart, the charities will have to try the second way of moving the legislation: rounding up 26 aldermen to vote the amendment out of committee over the mayor's objection.

Which will be about as easy as, oh, squeezing water from a stone, and then paying higher fees on it.

As Fioretti points out, you have to assume that some of the supporters will back off once the mayor applies pressure. So he and his allies are looking for a few additional backers.

Among the aldermen who haven't publicly backed the amendment are: Will Burns (Fourth), Anthony Beale (Ninth), George Cardenas (12th), Marty Quinn (13th), Matthew O'Shea (19th), Danny Solis (25th), Ray Suarez (31st), Richard Mell (33rd), Rey Colon (35th), Timothy Cullerton (38th), Margaret Laurino (39th), Pat O'Connor (40th), Mary O'Connor (41st), Michele Smith (43rd), Harry Osterman (48th), and Debra Silverstein (50th). To name a few.

A word of warning, aldermen: expect a few calls from imams, rabbis, priests, and ministers, along with a variety of nonprofit operators in your ward.

"This campaign's just heating up," says Ford.

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