When the city of Chicago raised its water rates 44 percent over a three-year period beginning in 2008, suburban water customers took the increase in stride. Water rates in many communities had been very small throughout the years prior to the increase. It was a small price to pay to keep the clean water flowing into suburban mains.
Now the city is at it again. Late in 2011, the Chicago City Council decided it was going to help balance its budget using water revenues as a spigot for cash. The city went all out, raising water rates 70 percent over the next four years.
What suburban customers once took in stride, they are now feeling in the wallet. And the obvious question to ask is, “Where does this end?”
Is Chicago planning on coming back in four more years with another 50-percent hit to suburban customers?
At some point, there needs to be accountability for these increases, which don’t appear wedded to infrastructure improvements necessary to keep the water system maintained and updated.
In short, the suburbs should be paying for the water they are receiving and the maintenance of the system that safely delivers that water. If the revenue from suburban customers is going to fund the salaries of Chicago bureaucrats or other city operations, then someone needs to step in and stop the city from using water as a bludgeon.
In recent months, the West Central Municipal Conference (WCMC) has started ringing the alarm on this issue, and rightly so. Earlier this month, the WCMC asked members to set aside 10 cents per capita to create a fund to help push back against the city.
While that money could be used for legal action against the city, we’re not so sure the courts are the place to solve this problem.
Instead, the money ought to be used for an intensive lobbying efforts to get state legislators to consider creating an independent state agency that oversees increases in water rates, so that suburban water customers are not at the mercy of the city’s budgeting process.
Indiana has a similar agency, the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, which works with water providers to vet proposed increases and make sure they are fair. It involves more than just water, too. The commission also oversees regulates natural gas and electric rates.
While that may not end up being a fool-proof system – it’s doubtful that politics can be removed from any sort of commission like this and it does add another layer of bureaucracy – it certainly has to be better that the current set-up, whereby suburbs receive a letter informing them of their fates whenever the spirit moves Chicago’s mayor.