Days after Chicago announced a campaign to can and sell its tap water, a proposed ordinance to end water shutoffs in Chicago and expand utility relief failed to pass a Chicago City Council committee.
Dubbed by lead sponsor Ald. Daniel La Spata, 1st, as the “Water for All” bill, the plan received a 5-8 vote in the environment committee after the body’s chair, Ald. George Cardenas, 12th, described the legislation as “so onerous that makes it almost impossible” to implement.
“Respect is given here for your passionate advocate of water rights; there’s no doubt about it,” Cardenas said. “However, there are legitimate issues, legitimate questions, in terms of how we would make this happen.”
La Spata’s proposal included a prohibition on privatizing water infrastructure and its operations, an end to water shutoffs, an expansion of the utility billing relief program and a shift of more of the cost burden to commercial and industrial water users.
After the vote failed, he tweeted, “I regret nothing.”
“This is one of the most urgent and pressing and basic issues facing the city,” La Spata said at the start of the meeting, which he had forced in an attempt to get the bill to the council floor. “Equitable and affordable access to clean drinking water, it’s not about branding or slogans. It’s about what we’re doing to ensure this right for all Chicagoans.”
During last month’s City Council meeting, Mayor Lori Lightfoot introduced a similar water affordability ordinance that would ban privatization of the city’s water system, establish a voluntary water meter installation program and prohibit shutoffs. That bill was relegated to the rules committee, where legislation often stalls.
One point of contention in Tuesday’s meeting was La Spata’s idea for a water credit of up to $3,000, or a fixed annual payment to eligible households for plumbing repairs or audits.
Lightfoot officials estimated it would cost up to $1 billion for the credit as well as a risk of the city suffering a credit downgrade if it were to breach the terms of its water bonds.
At Tuesday’s committee meeting, La Spata attempted to strike the credit provision from the version of the ordinance that members were voting on, in an attempt to garner more support. But that was blocked when Ald. Michele Smith, 43rd, motioned to table the measure and the committee voted in favor. Cardenas then chided La Spata for what he said were “parliamentary maneuvers.”
Chicago’s water is a source of controversy. Lightfoot has said the city needs to replace lead service lines and set aside more than $17 million to replace 650 out of 400,000 that ultimately need removing. But even the city’s modest plan has not seen much success, as only a few dozen lines have been replaced.
While Lightfoot and her administration have talked about the need to replace lead service lines, they have also repeatedly emphasized that Chicago’s water is safe.
Recently, Lightfoot officials spent $125,000 to market city tap water under the “Chicagwa” brand name. The city paid Quality Meats $100,000 to can and distribute Chicagwa. World Business Chicago, meanwhile, paid $25,000 for marketing.
Supporters of La Spata’s proposal Tuesday included a woman from the Park Manor neighborhood on the South Side who said she is currently unemployed and owes the city almost $10,000 in water bill payments.
“I strongly feel that the city of Chicago was trying to displace me and others with the harsh enforcement and collection tactics that they are using to collect on past due water bills, while at the same time making water so unaffordable for the people here in Chicago,” said Carla Padgett.