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Chico demands moratorium on water shut-offs

Chicago water meter

A residential water meter installed by the city of Chicago. | Sun-Times file photo

Mayoral candidate Gery Chico on Wednesday demanded a moratorium on water shutoffs that have cut off the water spigot to thousands of low-income families struggling to pay skyrocketing water bills.

Chico sounded the alarm after a nine-month investigation by American Public Media Reports analyzed water shutoff notices between 2007 and 2018 and found that they were concentrated in black and Hispanic communities.

The shut-offs stemmed from the fact that the cost of water for the average family of four in Chicago “nearly tripled” during that same period, the investigation found.

Similar results were found in five other Great Lakes cities studied: Cleveland, Milwaukee, Detroit, Buffalo and Duluth.

Together, the six cities issued 367,740 shutoff notices over the last decade. A “disproportionately-high” concentration were in impoverished neighborhoods with a majority of black and Hispanic residents, the investigation showed.

Chico branded those results “heartbreaking.”

Mayoral candidate Gery Chico is interviewed by reporter Fran Spielman in the Sun-Times newsroom Friday, February 8, 2019.

Mayoral candidate Gery Chico is interviewed by reporter Fran Spielman in the Sun-Times newsroom Friday, February 8, 2019. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

“We are literally cutting off a life-sustaining source to people who may not have the money,” Chico said.

“Until we come up with a program to assist low-income homeowners with water bills the way we have with gas and electric, there should be a moratorium on water shut-offs. People are gonna need some assistance when they don’t have the money, just like they do with gas and electric. And we need an articulated payment plan option.”

Water Department spokesperson Megan Vidis had no immediate comment.

Shortly after taking office, Mayor Rahm Emanuel rejected the idea of privatizing Chicago’s water system and more than doubled water and sewer rates followed by annual increases tied to the inflation rate to bankroll a massive rebuilding of the crumbling water and sewer infrastructure.

The city subsequently imposed a 29.5 percent surcharge on the water bill for the Municipal Employees Pension Fund. A $9.50-a-month garbage collection fee was also tacked onto the water bill along with a sewer surcharge.

Chico served as former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s chief-of-staff. He’s well aware water shutoffs have been used to reduce tens of millions of dollars in delinquent water bills.

But, he nevertheless argued that the city’s shut-off policy is cruel and unusual.

“It’s not just water and sewer. The garbage fee is on the bill. And if you don’t pay it, the fines and penalties accumulate. If you default on paying the water bill, there’s a very large re-connection fee. This is becoming beyond the reach of a lot of our citizens,” he said.

As for the cost of replacing lead service lines carrying water from the mains to an estimated 360,000 Chicago homes, Chico proposed that the city share the $2 billion cost with individual homeowners.

“We have to move quickly and I’m proposing something along the lines of a 50-50 sharing program the way we do the sidewalks in this city,” he said.

Where would the money would come from at a time when the city is also facing a looming, $1 billion spike in pension payments?

“Any one of a dozen sources. We’re looking at those right now because we want to find the one that’s going to be most appropriate in terms of sustainability. And it might even be a new source of money. I’ve proposed four or five new funding sources in my campaign,” he said.

Last year, the Emanuel administration came under fire for failing to notify owners of all 165,000 homes with water meters last summer that a “small subset” of metered homes had tested positive for elevated lead levels.

In June, the city found out that 15 metered homes or homes or 11 percent of those tested had elevated lead levels that exceeded the EPA standard of 15 parts-per-billion. Only those homeowners were notified.

In late October, City Hall found out the figure was 17.2 percent of 51 homeowners.

Then and only then was the decision made to notify the owners of all 165,000 metered homes and offer those homeowners homeowners free, $60 filtration systems while continuing to install meters.