Religious Leaders unite in fight to restore water exemptions


Unveil price tag on services they provide to city


By Chinta Strausberg

More than three-dozen diverse religious leaders met earlier this week at Elder Kevin A. Ford’s Community Center on the South Side, where they called for unity in urging Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the City Council to approve a budget amendment that would restore the water exemption and ensure the support of at least 27 aldermen needed to prevent a veto.

The more than two-hour meeting was held at Ford’s St. Paul Church of God in Christ Community Center, 4550 S. Wabash, where religious leaders including officials from the Archdioceses of Chicago agreed to accept the West Side’s already approved documents calling for the restoration of Water fee exemptions. They set October 1, 2012 as the deadline for the documentation of their church services to be submitted to Ford.

In a show of unity, Elder Michael Eaddy, pastor of the Peoples Church of the Harvest Church of God in Christ, and Rev. Dr. Leon Miller, pastor of the Mt. Ebenezer Baptist Church, agreed to blend their collection of water exemption documents with Ford’s and the Archdioceses’ as a sign of unity in this massive citywide project.

Elder Ford said this coalition has the initial support of Finance Chairman Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) and Ald. Howard Brookins (21st) who is also chairman of the City Council Black Caucus. Brookins asked that the “churches entertain methodology to” to include conservation relative to church operations.

Ford said in their discussion with Brookins they talked about “the city of Chicago in conjunction with the churches develop a methodology that could be deployed in the document that qualifies churches based upon their ministry and social services to the community.” He said that document would be submitted for the water exemption.

Attending the meeting was Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) who said the city was facing a $750 million deficit last year and that this year the deficit will be around $370 million. “We’re still in a hole. We are looking for every source of funding in order to sustain government.”

Dowell said as the religious leaders go through the process of fighting to restore the water exemptions, that “aldermen would be opened minded to the argument of rolling back” these taxes. However, she said, they needed to give them a “financial argument.” “No aldermen will want to say aye to a budget that will raise property taxes…or nickel and dime the average citizen.

“The challenge is to be able to find” ways to run the government, she said. She favors the documentation of the churches’ services to the communities.

Ford said churches that have food kitchens, shelters, after school programs “for the churches that are actually doing the work of the church must be supported. There is nothing wrong with finding a way to restore these exemptions.”

“The church ensures the quality of life…has always been the support mechanism when families have lost homes, when children have no where to go, when families suffer death and there is no way to pay the bill, they come to the church,” said Ford.

“The church has always been the focal component for the quality of life in the city of Chicago. This is not the time to challenge what the church is doing. This is the time now for the churches to work together. We want to support the government, but we’ve got to support the church. There is no where else where people can turn…,” said Ford. “We do what we do because of love.”

“I believe we can restore this. No insult, but I don’t think they really considered what the value was the church in the community…” said Ford. “The church as an impact on the economics of the city of Chicago.” “Most of us are working with unfunded mandates. We do this out of love,” he said not knowing the total amount of money the churches save the city through their services.

Archdiocese Chancellor Jimmy M. Lago said the impact of having churches and faith communities pay for water is troubling and that “it presents a huge challenge for us.”  He too called for unity in asking the city to restore the water/sewer exemption.  “The kind of presence…that the churches bring to the communities cannot be replaced.”

Lago said when you look at a church that has a $10,000 water bill that might have a budget of $100,000-a-year, “That’s significant. That’s cash out the door.” He said it leads to a cutback in providing services to the needy and that paying water bills “presents a huge challenge to us”—including the fiscal challenge of paying to install water meters in difficult locations as required by the city of Chicago.

The stakes are high for religious leaders especially for larger churches and institutions like the Misericordia Heart of Mercy whose water bill could easily soar to $500,000 a year. “They have kids who can’t get out of the wheelchair and adults who are so cripple from their disabilities that they have to be in the pool two or three times a day and water therapy.

Lago and Ford said they must work with the aldermen and get at least 27 votes to restore these exemptions. “We occupy a unique place,” said Lago.

“The value that we bring to communities in terms of economic value and in-kind services is way more than the kind of taxes and fees that they are trying to get from us,” said Lago. After talking to Ald. Burke, Lago said he believes that the revenue the city will get from the hospitals and universities is significantly greater than what was anticipated. “What we represent is such a small piece and what we are going to lose is even greater.”

“It is a fundamental lack of vision to want to put the burden on religious institutions,” he said. Given the times we live in today, Lago said more than ever “people go to their” houses of worship “during the most critical times of their lives.”

Superintendent Thomas Jackson of the New Original Church of God in Christ, said, “We need this restored because our very survival is at stake.” Jackson said the ministers should sign the letter of support and to present it as a package both to their aldermen with a copy to Elder Ford.

Rev. Leonard DeVille, pastor of the Alpha Temple MBC, who is the former alderman of the 21st Ward, said, “We have to come together as one body.

The group also agreed to set aside September 23, 2012, as “Restoration Sunday” the day for all religious leaders to have their members sign a letter of support in calling on the mayor and the City Council to restore the water exemption.

In the interim, Ford, who said most of his colleagues are burdened with “unfunded mandates” they do from love, asked religious leaders to submit to him a report that includes the names of their houses of worship, address, 2011 net operations (that may include a loss) and more important a detailed report of the social services they offer. Examples of this report were distributed to the group.

Last month, Ford led a delegation of religious leaders, including Superintendent Thomas J. Jackson, New Original COGIC, co-chair, his father, Bishop Charles Ford, St. Paul Church of God in Christ, Dr. Leonard DeVille, Alpha Temple Baptist Church, Rev. Dr. Marshall Hatch, New Mount Pilgrim MBC, Mr. Thomas Kennedy, director, Archdioceses Office for Real Estate Development and Planning and Mr. Jimmy M. Lago, Chancellor, Archdiocese of Chicago, to meet with Finance Chairman Ald. Edward M Burke (14th) who supports their case.

The Interfaith Coalition to Restore the Water Exemption for Religious Institutions agreed to sign an agreement that says, “The water exemption is a reasonable accommodation for our churches as are other current exemptions. The benefits of these exemptions to government have been significantly greater than the actual amount of taxes collected.

“Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent by religious institutions in this city each year to educate, feed, house, protect, help its citizens grieve and mourn the dead, especially those killed in street violence.

“We offer local police beats at no charge a place to house their patrols. We open our halls and gyms to children and youth in our communities so that they can be safe from gang activity, etc. The examples are endless and the value often incalculable.

“We are most often the essential member of the community network, without which disintegration begins and accelerates. We represent faith, hope, charity, transcendent spirit and the highest ideals of community well being.

“The water tax for religious institutions is a burden that will drive our community-based, faith communities into critical deficits. We solicit your support in an amendment to the Budget authorization for this coming fiscal year to restore the exemption for our churches, schools and related religious ministries and institutions.”

The documents should be submitted to Elder Ford before October 1, 2012 at: He can be reached at: 773-538-5120.

The next meeting will be held at 10 a.m.,Tuesday, September 18, 2012, 4550 S. Wabash.

Chinta Strausberg is a Journalist of more than 33-years, a former political reporter and a current PCC Network talk show host. You can e-mail Strausberg at: