Johnson offers relief to home and business owners soaked by sky-high water bills tied to underground leaks

Days before his runoff victory, then-mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson paid off more than $3,000 in outstanding water and sewer bills to the city that raised questions about his personal finances and might have prevented him from taking office.

Now, the mayor is offering a helping hand to Chicagoans soaked by sky-high water bills through no fault of their own.

The City Council’s Finance Committee on Monday unanimously approved the mayor’s two-year plan to offer nearly $2.4 million in financial relief to homeowners and business owners drowning in water bills tied to leaks in underground service lines repaired on or after Jan. 1, 2023. The measure could be passed by the full Council next week.

A press release from Johnson’s office included a quote from the mayor explaining his rationale and making veiled reference to his own situation.

“I know what it’s like to grow up in a household where the ends don’t always meet and one unexpected bill can be devastating. I also know what it’s like to have high water bills hanging over your head,” the mayor was quoted as saying.

“This pilot program will provide financial relief to families that are hit with outrageously high bills due to underground leaks that are out of their control.”

The program is open to residential customers who own single family homes, two- or three-flat units and commercial property owners with water service lines of one-inch or smaller. Eligible customers must own the property with the leak and apply for the break after the leak is confirmed, and repaired, by the Department of Water Management.

Eligible property owners will then receive a credit to reduce the amount of the water bill during the leak to the average amount of customer’s bill without the leak. The-two-year program is open to all customers, regardless of income.

But there’s a catch: If the eligible customer has a past-due balance, they must pay it in full or enroll in a payment plan.

The two-year pilot is expected to cost the city $572,000 to administer and nearly $2.4 million in lost revenue.

A presentation distributed to alderpersons offered an example of how much relief the program would provide.

In one instance, a woman owning a three-flat building with an outdoor underground vault normally received bi-monthly bills in the $250-to-$300 range.

Instead, she got socked with a bi-monthly bill in March 2004 for $1,500. After scouring her building for leaks, broken pipes and running toilets and finding none of the above, she called 311 and asked the water department to check for an outdoor leak.

Sure enough, the city found a leak in the underground service line from the meter vault to her building. The line was replaced. City Hall then lowered her bill from $1,500 to $275, saving her $ 1,225.

Johnson apparently considered the relief program so critical, he introduced it directly to committee and pushed for passage on the very same day. The process of bypass introduction at a full Council meeting is normally reserved for urgent matters.

City Comptroller Chasse Rehwinkel said the problem the city is trying to fix was raised by Finance Committee members during his confirmation hearing.

Rehwinkel recalled that alderpersons complains about underground leaks that “caused bills to skyrocket — sometimes from $100 or $200-per-cycle to $1,500, $3,000, even $10,000.”

“This body pressed me to explain the fairness of these high bills to explain why Chicagoans are being forced to pay for a service they had not, in all honesty, requested,” Rehwinkel said Monday.

“You were right to press me and my office on this topic. The city provides water as a service to its residents. These residents had not, in good faith, requested this extra water. Nor was it reasonable to believe that they were aware of any leaks that could be causing their bill to increase. It was and remains a policy problem the city must answer for its residents.”

Rehwinkel pegged the number of water bill “spikes five times or more” than the previous water bill at “roughly 1,000.” But he noted that “not all” of those spikes are tied to underground leaks.

The city sends out 350,000 in water bills.

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) was among several alderpersons who urged Rehwinkel to consider going back to underground water leaks prior to Jan. 1, 2023.

“I want to commend you for taking this on. I hope it goes beyond being a pilot because the need is very great,” Lopez said.

Said Ald. Nick Sposato (38th): “We’ve all heard some heartbreaking stories” branding those sky-high water bills “blood money.”

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) said he’s been “hearing from residents on their horrific experiences with outrageous water bills” for the last five years. He named three water customers who had been soaked with bills for $60,000, $44,000 and $80,000 respectively because of underground leaks they neither caused nor even knew about.

“Today is for any Chicagoan who has been harmed and had their livelihood disrupted,” Villegas said.

The relief program before the Finance Committee Monday is not the first to throw a life preserver to water customers.

Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot stopped water shutoffs, calling water a “basic human right,” then pushed through a series of breaks for water scofflaws.

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