Suburban lawmakers seek to create agency to regulate water rates

<p>Newly appointed state Sen. <a id=Steve Landek, center, talks with supporters Feb. 5 after a committee meeting at Toyota Park in Bridgeview. | Matt Marton/Sun-Times Media

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Newly appointed state Sen. Steve Landek, center, talks with supporters Feb. 5 after a committee meeting at Toyota Park in Bridgeview. | Matt Marton/Sun-Times Media

Bills recently introduced in the Illinois General Assembly aim to remove the ability to set water rates from Chicago and transfer that ability to a newly created entity.

State Sen. Steve Landek, D-11th of Bridgeview, and state Rep. Chris Welch, D-7th of Hillside, have introduced the Water Rate Protection Act in their respective chambers.

The bills are in response to Chicago raising the cost of water to suburbs near and far. In 2012, the Chicago City Council raised water rates by 25 percent. The cost increases by 15 percent each year in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Either directly or indirectly, the city sells Lake Michigan water to 125 suburbs.

Neil James, a policy analyst with the West Central Municipal Conference, said he thinks the Chicago city government could have done better with communicating with the suburbs.

“We found out about (the rate increase) through a newspaper,” James said. “There were no public hearings. There should be some type of dialogue.”

After the rates were increase, leaders of the municipal conference met with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, though to no avail.

In 2012, State Sen. Matt Murphy introduced legislation to regulate water rates. That legislation was introduced only in the Senate and rather late in the session, James said.

The two bills introduced by Landek and Welsh are “shell” bills or bills that have no content. The idea is that legislators will negotiate and fill in the details.

Welch said he has numerous calls from politicians and residents of the western suburbs he represents

“They are all consistent about the unfair, arbitrary increase in water rates that the city of Chicago passed on to the suburban communities two years ago,” Welch said. “No discussion beforehand, no warning.”

In the House, the HB 4288 like all bills will start in the Rules Committee, which is composed of House leadership. After that it will get assigned to a “substantive” committee, probably around March 1, Welch said.

Then begin negotiations over the content of the bill, which have to be completed by the end of March. The bill could be up for a vote some time in April.

In the Senate, SB 2907 has been sent to the Assignments Committee. The bill would follow a similar path as in the House and, if approved, have to be aligned with its House counterpart.

“I’m working with legislators who work in suburban communities and those who receive water from the city of Chicago,” Welch said. “I’m pretty confident I’ll get 60 votes (enough to pass bill) in the House.”

James hopes so.

“Lake Michigan water is a resource,” James said. “One entity should not be able to tax that natural resource as it sees fit without any sort of regulation.”