Thursday, October 26, 2017 || By Local News Curator || @maywoodnews
A two-part Chicago Tribune investigative piece, published online Oct. 25, reports that majority-minority suburbs with relatively high concentrations of low-income residents, pay more for water service (and for fees related to maintenance and reconnections) than some of the wealthiest (and whitest) suburbs in the country.
The lengthy report singles out black suburbs like Ford Heights, Harvey and Maywood as places with some of the highest water rates and reconnection fees in the region.
A screenshot of a Chicago Tribune graphic charting the comparison between average water rates and median household income.
“The latest census figures show that Maywood has about 7,400 households,” the Tribune reports. “Last year, the village issued 1,436 water disconnection notices on residential and commercial accounts, records show, though it’s unclear how many of the notices led to water service being discontinued.”
Residents in Maywood have to pay $300 in order for their service to resume if their water has been disconnected after a 30-day nonpayment period. In Calumet Park it’s $200. In Glenwood and Ford Heights it’s $100.
According to the report, a range of explanations have been presented for the high water rates in lower-income, majority-minority communities, including “cracked pipes and leaky hydrants” that cause large amounts of water to be lost and the “exorbitant replacement costs of that infrastructure.”
For instance, the Tribune found that of “the 946 million gallons that Maywood bought from Melrose Park in 2016, 367 million gallons, or 38.7 percent, never made it to taps, costing residents and businesses in this cash-strapped village nearly $1.7 million. Maywood residents pay one of the region’s highest water rates.”
(The Tribune explained that its analysis of water lost through leaky pipes doesn’t take into account so-called “apparent loss,” which includes “meter or accounting errors and water theft”).
Towns with mostly black residents (which pay among the highest water rates in the region) lost, on average, 18 percent of water, compared to the overall regional rate of 10 percent.
There are also the costs related to fraud and mismanagement. The Tribune cites a case of mismanagement investigated in 2015 by the Cook County sheriff’s office involving Maywood employees in the finance department who fraudulently credited the accounts of village property owners.
Several employees were fired after the scheme, including one public works employee who appealed his firing and sued the village, claiming wrongful termination. After an arbitrator sided with him, the employee was eventually awarded over $100,000. He has since been reinstated.
The Tribune explains that the abuses in places like Maywood are undergirded by “a system that lacks accountability.”
According to state law, elected officials in municipalities like Maywood can set their own water rates by adopting ordinances and there’s no guarantee that they’ll “keep water revenue in water accounts.”
“In fact, it’s legal for towns to divert water revenue to other purposes, provided local officials deem the water system is being managed properly,” the Tribune reports.
Maywood Village Manager Willie Norfleet, Jr., who the Tribune interviewed, said he thought the village’s water loss was as high as 50 percent. He attributed the loss to a “significant number of meters are malfunctioning” and “many leaking hydrants and broken water mains,” according to the Tribune.
Norfleet said that the village “is making progress on lowering the water loss by repairing and replacing water meters and hydrants, installing a better water pump and control system at the village’s water plant and going after delinquent customers.”
Counting your losses
For its report, the Tribune created an interactive database where readers can look up the average monthly water bill for their town for every 5,000 gallons in 2017, the percentage of water loss their town reported losing in 2016 because of leaky pipes or water main breaks, and the age of the town’s pipes in 2014.
- Monthly water bill for 5,000 gal. in 2017: $55.85 (a 32% increase since 2013)
- % water loss in 2016: 26.16
- Age of pipes: 53 percent of the village’s 43 miles of pipes are over 60 years old
- Monthly water bill for 5,000 gal. in 2017: $44.09 (a 23% increase since 2013)
- % water loss in 2016: N/A (Broadview didn’t submit a 2016 water audit form and isn’t in state compliance, according to the Tribune).
- Age of pipes: Over 60 percent of the village’s 34 miles of pipes are between 21 and 40 years old.
- Monthly water bill for 5,000 gal. in 2017: $72.61 (an 11% increase since 2013)
- % water loss in 2016: 38.73
- Age of pipes: 60 percent of the village’s 62 miles of pipes are over 60 years old.
- Monthly water bill for 5,000 gal. in 2017: $26.60 (a 15% increase since 2013)
- % water loss in 2016: 22.18
- Age of pipes: 42 percent of the village’s 77 miles of pipes are under 20 years old. And 27 percent are over 60 years old.
Note: Bellwood, Broadview and Maywood water passes from Lake Michigan to Chicago through Melrose Park and experiences an additional markup. Melrose Park gets its water directly from Chicago.