clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Aldermen urged to ‘learn from Flint’s nightmare’ and replace lead service lines

A rally outside Flint City Hall in 2016. Free bottled water and water filters were being handed out. | Flint Journal photo, distributed by the Associated Press

The City Council was urged Monday to “learn from Flint’s nightmare” by slapping a 1 percent tax on the sale of high-end property to help homeowners defray the cost of replacing lead service lines that carry water into Chicago homes.

The most alarming testimony came from Felicia Chase, a geologist and water specialist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who “saw first-hand the devastation that widespread lead poisoning can have on a community” during five deployments to Flint, Michigan.

Chase talked about kids allowed to drink rationed amounts of bottled water because the water from their kitchen sinks was poisonous and about the family of five that haunts her to this day.

That family’s youngest child was a toddler with rashes all over his body, the worst one on his scalp.

The mother — guilt-ridden from mixing the child’s baby formula with tap water instead of breast-feeding — had taped socks to the baby’s hands so the child wouldn’t worsen the chemical rashes from contaminated bath water.

“She kept asking me if her child was gonna be OK. She asked me if her child was gonna have long-term effects from this lead in her drinking water. These are questions I couldn’t answer. These are questions that haunt me. These are questions that no community and mother should have to face,” Chase said.

“I urge you take steps to prevent lead poisoning from the lead pipes that transport our drinking water from Lake Michigan to us in Chicago. We have to learn from Flint’s nightmare. We have to take the steps we can to fund the removal of lead pipes in our most vulnerable communities.”

Chicago’s aging water delivery system has been a concern for years. Though the city is replacing the larger main water lines, like this one, smaller lead service lines to individual homes remain in use. | Associated Press
Chicago’s aging water delivery system has been a concern for years. Though the city is replacing the larger main water lines, like this one, smaller lead service lines to individual homes remain in use. | Associated Press

The Finance Committee took testimony, but no action on the funding solution championed by aldermen Gilbert Villegas (36th), Chris Taliaferro (29th) and Scott Waguespack (32nd).

It’s a 1 percent tax paid by the sellers of Chicago homes purchased for more than $750,000.

The aldermen claim it would generate at least $180 million a year and as much as $240 million.

No U.S. city has more lead service lines than Chicago. They desperately need to be replaced at a cost that could range from $4,000 to $7,000 for each of the 360,000 impacted properties.

That can’t be done overnight. Nor can the cost — from $1.4 billion to $2.5 billion — be shouldered entirely by Chicago homeowners who have already endured more than $1.3 billion in property tax increases for police, fire and teacher pensions.

That’s where the tax comes in. It could be imposed only after a referendum approved by Chicago voters. That’s another hurdle that must be overcome.

“In the `40’s and `50’s, we knew lead was bad. Yet Chicago continued to use lead lines all the way until 1986. … Had the city moved forward with not allowing lead to be used, we wouldn’t be in this predicament. … That pool of houses would be smaller,” Villegas said.

“We need to find some way to help these seniors who can’t afford these service lines. We need to find a way to help these low-income families, specifically black and brown families that can’t afford this $4,000 to $7,000.”

Taliaferro said the lead poisoning issue is personal: “My children have elevated lead levels,” he said.

Brian Bernardoni, senior director of government affairs and public policy for the Chicago Association of Realtors, said the proposed 1 percent tax on large real estate transactions “won’t even come close” to generating the money needed to solve the problem.

In fact, the annual take could be as low as $20 million, Bernardoni said.

“There are only 279 listings in the city of Chicago as of today on Realtor.com this month” that exceed $750,000, Bernardoni said.

Instead of putting the burden on high-end real estate, Bernardoni suggested an additional fee on the water bill — on top of the 29.5 percent fee for the Municipal Employees Pension Fund.

“If people don’t want lead in the water and they want the problem solved now, let’s deal with it in an effective way that’s strung out across all water users. Every single water bill,” he said.

Mayoral candidates Ja’Mal Green and Paul Vallas have both put forward cost-sharing plans to help homeowners defray the cost of replacing lead service lines and distribute testing kits and water filtration systems until that happens.

Green would tackle the costlier challenger of replacing lead service lines by giving homeowners a choice: Pick your own contractor and assume the entire cost. Or, let the city do the work and share the cost over five to 10 years, through an additional fee on the property tax bill.

For low-income homeowners, Green would establish a fund that would accept private donations and draw revenue from the city’s $205 million vehicle tax fund.

Vallas would bankroll lead service line replacement with a Neighborhood Conservation Fund that would provide grants, low-interest loans and partial subsidies, depending on income levels.

Seed money would come from excess TIF dollars, developer fees and by asking the state to “stop diverting corporate personal property tax replacement dollars.”