CHICAGO HEIGHTS | In an effort to limit the impact residents will feel as a result of increased water rates, the City Council unanimously approved an ordinance on Monday that eliminates the community service fee that had been added to residents' bi-monthly water bills in April 2000 to supplement the city's general fund.
The community service fee for seniors in the city had been $25.50 per water bill, while other residents paid $38.24.
The ordinance also raised from $2.47 to $5.50 the cost residents will pay per unit of water. That was done in response to the city of Hammond's decision to charge Chicago Heights $2.20 per 1,000 gallons of water.
Under a 30-year contract that expired Nov. 12, Hammond had sold Chicago Heights water at a rate of 57.5 cents per 1,000 gallons.
Mayor David Gonzalez said doing away with the community service fee will mean that, despite the increased cost per unit of water, the average household in the city will likely only pay about $43 a year more for water.
He said the average senior citizen household should only have to pay about $12 more a year.
The new water rates and elimination of the service fee will take effect Jan. 1.
Although Chicago Heights has filed two lawsuits to contest the amount of Hammond's increase, Gonzalez said the city could not afford to wait for the outcome of those suits before deciding whether or not to raise the water rates.
"They've already sent us the first bill at $2.20," Gonzalez said. "We already saw that the bill for the first month was $400,000 more than what we paid last month."
Corporation Counsel T.J. Somer said the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission had promised to give Chicago Heights an answer by the end of the year as to whether they would accept jurisdiction of the matter between Chicago Heights and Hammond. The city has not yet received a response.
"And the federal court proceeding is waiting on the regulatory commission answer," Somer said.
Gonzalez said Hammond is charging Chicago Heights a much higher rate than was previously charged in order to make up for anticipated gaming revenue declines and because Hammond is not legally allowed to make a profit on water it sells to other Indiana communities.
In order to back up his claims, Gonzalez played for the audience at Monday's City Council meeting video clips of Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. discussing his plans for raising money through the sale of water to Chicago Heights.
"Hammond knows that they're going to start losing casino revenue once a bill gets passed in Springfield," Gonzalez said. "We already know that there's going to be casinos in Rockford, Danville, Park City, Chicago and a south suburban location."
Gonzalez said the now defunct community service fee had enabled Chicago Heights to take in about $1.5 million to $1.6 million annually.
He encouraged residents to conserve water, notify the city of illegal water usage and report water leaks to the city to help make up for that loss in revenue.
Continuing a leak detection program and exploring intergovernmental agreements are two of the ways Gonzalez said the city will try to compensate for the money the community service fee had generated.