Like Water for Nonprofits: Added Breaks Granted Behind Scenes in Council

By Ted Cox on May 9, 2013 3:57pm 

 Ald. Bob Fioretti reveals a behind-the-scenes deal on water for nonprofits has been reached in the middle of Wednesday's City Council meeting.
Ald. Bob Fioretti reveals a behind-the-scenes deal on water for nonprofits has been reached in the middle of Wednesday's City Council meeting.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

CITY HALL — Free water for nonprofits will flow more abundantly thanks to a back-channel deal in the City Council.

"It is an agreement," said Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd). "Everybody put their word on it. So, we're gonna see how good the word is of everyone on both sides here."

The deal involves rules and regulations that will be set as part of the new ordinance and will apparently allow some churches and nonprofits to separate property from their overall assets, enabling them to claim free water or a greater reduction on rates.

"We don't know that yet," said Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), chairman of the Budget Committee, which handled the new ordinance. "The budget director has to promulgate rules and regulations with the Water Department, and then that may become the factor in it."

As expected, the council approved a four-tiered rate structure for churches and other nonprofit agencies at Wednesday's meeting. Those with assets under $1 million would get city water free of charge. Those valued at up to $10 million would get a 60 percent exemption. Those up to $250 million would get a 25 percent exemption. Those valued more than that would pay the full rate.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel stated that it ended decades of "subsidizing" nonprofits, "to the tune of $20 million" a year, while recognizing that "not all nonprofits are the same."

"Northwestern Hospital or the University of Chicago Hospital is not the same as a storefront church," Emanuel added. "I think we came out with the right balance."

The sticking point, however, was determining those assets. The city ruled that Catholic churches would be considered individually, not as the Archdiocese of Chicago, which might easily top $250 million in value from its more than 350 parishes, including both churches and schools. At the same time, those churches are technically owned by Cardinal Francis George, limiting the assets of each parish in a way not available to an individual Protestant church or Jewish synagogue.

 Mayor Rahm Emanuel says, "I think we came out with the right balance" on water for nonprofits, but aldermen pushed for additional breaks in backroom negotiations.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel says, "I think we came out with the right balance" on water for nonprofits, but aldermen pushed for additional breaks in backroom negotiations.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

Emanuel acknowledged that the rules and regulations were to be adjusted, and according to Fioretti, a behind-the-scenes deal was reached in the middle of Wednesday's City Council meeting on the property issue.

Aldermen Pat Dowell (3rd) and Will Burns (4th) both voted against the initial measure in council, but then changed their votes afterward when word of the tentative agreement reached them. In the end, it passed unanimously.

"I think all of the concerns that the ministers had, the archdiocese had, all of it is gonna be addressed," Austin said. "It's a living document, and it can be amended at any point in time."

She said the behind-the-scenes agreement was no big news and that Budget Director Alexandra Holt had promised the property issue would be addressed in additional rules. "She said it 100 times," Austin said. "But I guess they didn't hear that part."

Nonetheless, the agreement made a big difference to aldermen like Fioretti, Dowell and Burns.

"I think we're gonna see a lot of movement in the next week as the rules and regulations come out," Fioretti said. "It'll be beneficial for everyone across the city, the compromise that was made."

"Everybody's not gonna be happy," Austin said.

Fioretti said if the rules limiting property weren't satisfactory to him and other aldermen he might yet introduce his own amendments to the original water ordinance. Fioretti had floated a proposal granting free water to churches and "charitable" nonprofits, but held it back to let the Emanuel administration's proposal clear the council — when it appeared the behind-the-scenes deal was struck.

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