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Legislation aims to make water rates across Illinois more affordable and equitable
Monday, April 22, 2019 Chicago Tribune by Patrick O'Connell
Aiming to address a disparity in what Illinois residents pay for the water they use for drinking, cooking and bathing, proposed legislation in Springfield would require a comprehensive review of water rates throughout northeastern Illinois. The review would initially focus on how rates are set in communities that use water from Lake Michigan, but eventually include an analysis of rates throughout the entire state.
The goal of the legislation, proponents said, is to make water rates across Illinois more affordable and equitable. Several sponsors of the legislation in the Illinois House and Senate represent communities in the suburbs south and west of Chicago where residents pay some of the highest rates in the state.
“We have to finally monitor the rates that our residents are being charged for water,” said state Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, the sponsor in the House.
The proposed legislation, lawmakers said, is in response to “The Water Drain,” a series of stories the Chicago Tribune published in 2017. The Tribune found that residents in the region’s lowest-income communities pay more for their water — as much as six times more — than residents in the wealthiest towns. The series also found that residents of towns with majority African-American populations pay a monthly water bill that is 20 percent higher than towns with majority white populations. At the same time, some of those towns lose more than a third of their water to leaking infrastructure.
“The goal is, in Illinois, it’s well-known and understood that rates in certain areas vary, and I think we had had to slow-walk things to get better understanding and to get more people to understand what’s going on and to get more buy-in,” said Ford, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Chicago during the spring. “I decided to lead for a change to the way we deliver water and to try to provide some people some relief.”
Ford said water is a basic civil right and the state should make sure it is delivered through a system that is fair.
The legislation, which has passed in the Senate and is awaiting a hearing before the House Public Utilities Committee, calls for the formation of a water rate advisory committee to study what communities pay for water and how those rates are set. The committee would include academic experts and representatives from several state agencies, including the state Environmental Protection Agency, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the attorney general’s office and the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
The proposal is designed to have the review of Lake Michigan water rates completed by December 2020, with the remainder of the state to come a year later. It would also address “the reasons for increases in water rates,” “the definition of affordability,” the “challenges within economically disadvantaged communities” and “opportunities for increased intergovernmental coordination for setting equitable water rates.”
Several other proposals in Springfield also target water-related issues. One aims to create a clean water workforce pipeline program that would provide grants and financial help to support careers in water infrastructure. Another is designed to direct the Illinois EPA to prioritize disadvantaged communities when distributing funds for the water loan program. And another would create a new Cook County water infrastructure fund to help pay for system upgrades and bolster state oversight in an attempt to prevent municipalities from overcharging other towns for Lake Michigan water.
South suburban Harvey may be one of the municipalities that receives relief or assistance if the proposals become law. Harvey’s incoming mayor, Christopher Clark, made addressing the suburb’s soaring water rates and leaky network of underground water pipes one of his central central campaign themes.
“I’m encouraged with the possibility of bills in the House, bills in the Senate, bills anywhere that are designed to try to help us address this issue,” said Clark, who is slated to take over in May.
The main challenge in Harvey is the lack of funds to repair broken water mains and upgrade decades-old systems, Clark said. And with tax revenue and other forms of state and federal financial assistance lacking, residents end up footing the bill. Clark is hopeful that legislation both at the state and federal level may open up access to new infrastructure grant money, or loan programs, that Harvey can use to tackle its water woes.
“From an economic development standpoint, I’m hopeful that we may be able to use this for infrastructure improvements, or to help find public-private partnerships,” Clark said. “It’s a top priority. In my campaign, I said it was necessary to lower our water rates.”
Clark also said it’s essential that the communities most affected by crumbling infrastructure and soaring water rates are included in debates and discussions at the regional, state and federal levels regarding plans and programs of the future.
“I want to try to make sure that Harvey is represented at the table as these concepts are originated and as the decisions are made,” Clark said.
The prospects for the legislative proposals are unclear. Several similar proposals stalled last year.
The water rate review bill has been assigned to the public utilities commission in the House, where it may face objections from the private sector. Another water-related proposal, a bill that would require a voter referendum before municipalities turn their water systems over to a private company, did not advance earlier this spring.