A proposal in the Illinois legislature aims to 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.
The legislation introduced this week in the Senate and the House is designed to address soaring water bills and inequities in rates, which often leave residents in minority and less affluent communities paying more, said State Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, the sponsor of the House bill.
“What we know is that, depending on your zip code, depending on where you live, you pay more for water than people in affluent communities,” Ford said. “Poor communities pay more. … That’s a fairness issue.”
Ford cited an investigative series by the Chicago Tribune, “The Water Drain,” for bringing the issues to light and prompting the proposals at the state level. The Tribune found that residents in the region’s lowest-income communities pay more for their water — as much as six times more — than those 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.
Ford said water is a “basic civil right” and the state should make sure it is delivered through a system that does not penalize communities without direct access to Lake Michigan. The legislation targets the wholesale rates different municipalities charge other towns for water supply and delivery.
“We want to do everything we can about this,” Ford said.
The proposals would also try to compel the Environmental Protection Agency to monitor municipalities that supply water to other towns to ensure they “are not charging more than the actual cost of providing water.”
The state infrastructure fund would be used to make grants to Cook County towns to improve water delivery systems. Ford said he hopes funding could come through a capital improvements spending bill. Federal infrastructure dollars would be funneled into the water improvement fund as well, he said.
State Sen. Napoleon Harris, D-Harvey, whose south suburban district includes several communities plagued by high water bills and deteriorating underground pipes, is the author of the bill in the Senate.
Roughly half of the water pipes in suburban towns surveyed were at least 40 years old, the Tribune found. In the past year alone, towns lost more than 25 billion gallons of water through leaky pipes at a cost of $44 million to the area’s residents.
Ford said he plans to hold an informal meeting about the proposals in the beginning of March, with the goal of introducing the bills to committees in the House and Senate in the coming weeks.
The proposed legislation in Springfield comes on the heels of a Cook County Board of Commissioners hearing in January to address to the wide disparity in water rates and high levels of water loss across the Chicago region. Ford and Harris took notice of the meeting and have been speaking with municipal leaders about funding challenges and residents concerned about expensive water bills.
Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin held a hearing following publication of the Tribune’s series. Officials from Harvey, Maywood and Ford Heights testified about the dire financial circumstances facing their towns and the struggle to upgrade faulty, leaking pipes. While they disagreed on causes of the disparity, they found common ground on the need for increased state and federal aid and pledged to seek ways to find it.
Boykin’s district includes Maywood, the community with the highest water loss — 38 percent — and seventh-highest monthly water bills among towns in the Chicago area that receive Lake Michigan water and manage their water systems.
Boykin said there needs to be state oversight of municipal water rates, which currently happens only among privately managed systems. The commissioner said at the time he hoped the hearing at the county level will draw the attention of the region’s congressional leaders. He also plans to talk about water infrastructure at the National Association of Counties meeting next month.
Ford acknowledged that, because of the way individual towns charge residents and set fees, the bills do not alleviate all of the issues with high and disparate water rates. But he said the state has little control over municipal “home rule” rate setting.
The proposed legislation seeks to even the playing field, he said, and also make water rates more transparent. The bills would require towns to post online the cost of supplying water.
“We don’t want to pit the poor against the well-off,” Ford said. “But the fact is, if you live in Highland Park you’re not paying double. If you’re in Maywood, you pay double, and that’s not fair. The system should be fair.”