Ramirez-Rosa pushes water and sewer break for low-income Chicagoans

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Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) at the City Council meeting on Sept. 6, 2017. He is pushing what he calls a “Chicago Water for All” ordinance aimed at reducing water and sewer bills for low-income Chicagoans. | Brian Jackson/ For the Sun-Times

Arguing that water and sewer bills have more than tripled over the last decade, rookie Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) is trying to prevent low-income Chicagoans from getting soaked.

Three months ago, State Sen. Daniel Biss, a Democratic candidate for governor, dropped the rookie alderman as his running mate over Ramirez-Rosa’s support for the movement to punish and isolate Israel with “Boycott, Divest and Sanction.”

Now, Ramirez-Rosa is pushing what he calls a “Chicago Water for All” ordinance aimed at reducing water and sewer bills for low-income Chicagoans while insulating Chicago’s water and sewer system from privatization by requiring approval of two-thirds of all Chicago voters.

“Over the last decade, a typical household’s water and sewer bill has more than tripled in Chicago: from $146 a year in 2007 to $501 a year for 60,000 gallons,” Ramirez-Rosa’s office said in announcing plans for a Wednesday news conference on the ordinance introduced by the rookie alderman on the day he cast one of three dissenting votes against Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2018 budget.

“The new utility tax alone will add another $115 onto a typical household’s annual bill by 2020. Based on the United Nation’s affordability standard, a typical water bill is currently unaffordable for the 17 percent of Chicago households who are living on less than $15,000 a year. Without action, water bills will become unaffordable for growing numbers of Chicagoans.”

Ramirez-Rosa could not be reached for comment on the ordinance, which was sent to the Rules Committee, the traditional burial ground for legislation opposed by the mayor’s office.

The proposed Water for All credit would be made available to “all residential users whose household income in a calendar year is less than 200 percent of the federal government’s official poverty income guidelines.”

The size of the credit would be based on a formula calculated by using the recipient’s annual household income and the amount of their annual water bill.

Emanuel’s communications director Adam Collins said “no one likes raising revenue,” but ignoring the need to rebuild a water and sewer system with chunks more than 100 years old is “not an option either.”

“We would love it if there were credible options to reduce the impact on homeowners. That’s why the mayor pushed to increase the homeowners’ property tax exemption. But Ald. Rosa has offered no credible alternatives,” Collins wrote in an email.

Shortly after taking office, Emanuel took a long-rumored privatization of Chicago’s water and sewer system off the table.

Instead, the mayor doubled water and sewer rates over a four-year period, followed by annual increases tied to the cost of living, to pay for a massive overhaul of Chicago’s crumbling water and sewer infrastructure.

Last year, the strain on Chicago homeowners and businesses got worse.

By a lopsided vote of 40-10, the City Council approved the mayor’s plan to slap a 29.5 percent tax on water and sewer bills to save a Municipal Employees Pension Fund with $18.6 billion in unfunded liabilities that’s due to run out of money in 2025.

The tax is being phased in over a four-year period to minimize the burden on beleaguered homeowners and businesses already reeling from $1.2 billion in property tax increases for police, fire and teacher pensions and school construction.

The average homeowner is paying $53.16 this year; $115.20 in 2018; $180.96 in 2019, and $225.96 in 2020 and 2012. During the four-year phase-in, the city’s annual take will rise from $56.4 million next year to $240.1 million in 2020.

Chief Financial Officer Carole Brown has openly acknowledged that the largest of four city employee pension funds would still be left with a gaping hole in 2023 — even after the utility tax is fully phased in. That hole will require “more revenue” to honor the city’s ironclad commitment to reach 90 percent funding over a 40-year period.

Brown has also acknowledged the new utility tax still has “room to grow.” But she has argued that does not necessarily condemn beleaguered Chicago taxpayers to a never-ending cycle of tax increases.

Cost-cutting and future benefit reductions could fill at least part of the gap, she has said.

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