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Can Church Water Bills Help Plug Budget Gap?

By JoshMogerman in News on Oct 23, 2011 8:30PM

Down the Drain [j. botter]

While most in Chicago are facing steep increases in what they will be paying for water as the City tries to plug a massive budget hole, Alderman Burke wants to continue giving the service away to religious institutions and schools. Mayor Emanuel proposed ending the long-standing, and legally-questionable, freebie which would put $7 million into the City’s coffers. But Alderman Burke balks at the move, noting the good work done by many of Chicago’s religious institutions could be imperiled by the tough economic climate:

“We may have a political issue” with charging parochial schools for water, Burke said. “You might think about continuing waivers for some small Catholic parish or Lutheran parish or synagogue that is hard pressed and see what the dollar-effect might be. . . . We don’t want to throw the baby out with the proverbial bath water, right?” ... “There are so many of these Catholic schools that are struggling now, that politically, it's kind of a hard vote to take, since they've come to expect these waivers for many years,” Burke said. “And if indeed it's a small amount of money overall, is it wise to do that given the fact that they are facing these challenges?”

The Trib’s Eric Zorn called out the Alderman’s concerns as “all wet” in a Friday column, noting that plenty of non-religious institutions do good work too---without bringing up an obvious legal issue:

Following the U.S. and Illinois constitutional guidelines for keeping church and state separate does require the sacrifice of a few metaphorical babies now and then. We can't (or aren't supposed to) divert public resources for sectarian purposes, no matter how wholesome.

A lot, no doubt. But the same is true for many of the secular not-for-profit agencies that will begin to pay for their water and full sewer charges if Emanuel has his way.

Beyond Zorn's point, we just don’t like the idea of basic services being used as a political chit to be doled out willy-nilly, even if that has been business as usual in the past. Something as basic and central as water should not be a political issue whether it is related to favored secular or religious institutions or a long-rumored, hair-brained plan to sell services in a search of an easy budget fix.