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Mayor accuses Emanuel of punting lead pipe problem, says ‘time of reckoning is now’

Without naming Rahm Emanuel, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said her predecessor had an “opportunity” to confront the public health issue impacting Chicago’s drinking water supply, but did not — ‘‘for whatever reason.”

Chicago City Hall
No city in America has more lead service lines than Chicago. Now, they must be replaced — and that cost could range from $3,000 to $10,000 for each of property.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday accused her predecessor of punting a $10 billion problem and said the “time of reckoning is now” for replacing lead service lines carrying water from street mains to 360,000 Chicago homes.

Without naming former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Lightfoot said her predecessor had an “opportunity” to confront the public health issue impacting Chicago’s drinking water when he embarked on his “very ambitious water main replacement” program bankrolled by a doubling of water and sewer rates.

“For whatever reason, the prior administration did not address that. The time of reckoning is now,” the mayor said.

“We are hard at work on trying to address this issue and not kick the can down the road. … No, we do not have an extra $10 billion laying around. So we’ve got to make sure we’re doing this in a smart way. We’re doing it in an efficient way. And obviously the replacement of lead service lines, given the proliferation of them across our city, is a multi-year process.”

Emanuel refused to comment on Lightfoot’s “kick-the-can” accusation. Since leaving office, he has refused to sit in judgment of his successor or comment publicly on anything she does.

No city in America has more lead service lines than Chicago. In fact, the city required lead service lines for single-family homes and two-flats until a congressional ban in 1986.

Now, those lines must be replaced. The cost could range from $3,000 to $10,000 for each property, not counting restoration costs.

That can’t be done overnight. Nor can the cost 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.

Under questioning, Lightfoot refused to say whether homeowners would be asked to share the cost — through, presumably, yet another fee attached to their water bill.

She would say only that the massive price tag — at a time when the pandemic has blown a $700 million hole in her 2020 budget — requires the city to “think creatively” and seek federal and state help.

“I’m not gonna sit here and tell you we’ve figured out the financing piece. … Even if we weren’t facing fiscal challenges, $10 billion, which is the outside estimate, is a lot of money,” she said.

Last year, Lightfoot was among a parade of mayoral candidates accusing Emanuel of a “cover-up.”

She argued then that concerned Chicago homeowners could not wait for the results of a $750,000 study aimed at determining the cost of and potential funding sources for a multiyear plan to replace lead service lines at about 360,000 Chicago homes.

“Whatever it takes, this administration has a moral obligation to make this right,” she said then.