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Are Chicago's water rates fair? Suburb says no

A Chicago suburb is complaining about the price it'll soon have to pay the city for Lake Michigan water.

Chicago sells water to everyone at the same price: whether they're residents of a South Side bungalow, a skyscraper's landlord or a suburb. And with Mayor Rahm Emanuel pushing for water rates to double over the next four years, Oak Park Village Manager Tom Barwin is puzzled by the flat rate.

His village gets only water, Barwin said, while for the same price, Chicago residents get all the services that come with that water.

"The city provides no services to the suburban customers. They don't come out here and repair broken water mains," he said. "They don't read meters. They don't provide any of the overhead that suburban customers have to have to maintain their systems."

Oak Park has to tack on those costs to the price it charges its residents. Currently, Oak Park bills its water customers $4.85 per thousand gallons - more than double the $2.01 that Chicago charges.

Barwin sent Chicago Water Commissioner Tom Powers a letter, urging him to consider a staggered rate structure, and a longer phase-in period for the rate increase.

Several times in recent weeks Powers has publicly implied that the city's hands are tied, and can't give suburbs a discount even if it wanted to.

“Our suburban customers will participate in rate increases,” Powers said at a press conference alongside Emanuel on Oct. 14. “As a matter of fact, we are bound by law to charge the exact same rate to our customers - residential, commercial and suburban.”

Powers made a similar claim referencing "case law" during a city council budget hearing a week later, and "prior litigation" in an information packet distributed to suburbs that get water from Chicago.

It turns out not to be true. State law forbids Chicago from charging suburbs more than it charges city residents, but there's nothing in the law preventing  Chicago from charging the suburbs less.

A water department spokesman, Tom LaPorte, acknowledged Powers misspoke.

"What Tom should have said is that the City of Chicago has been upheld in its practice of charging a uniform rate for all categories of metered customers," LaPorte said in an email, referring to a past lawsuit filed against Chicago by dozens of suburbs.

"Ours is a giant, complicated system, and there is no way to separate the pipes, pumping stations or other infrastructure components that serve local areas," LaPorte added.

Chicago aldermen are expected to approve the water fee increase on Wednesday, and are unlikely to have any sympathy for the more than 100 suburbs, including Oak Park, that get water via Chicago.

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