Water Fee Exemption Application Guide
(N.B. This document may be long, but it deals in a simple, straightforward way with a topic important to you. Please read and enjoy.)
The authoritative on-line version of the application can be found by following this link: http://www.chicago.gov/city/en/depts/fin/supp_info/revenue/not-for-profit_entityexemption.html. What follows is a discussion of the different elements of the application process, and an invitation to work together, particularly on the Water Conservation requirement. Our purpose is to make this easy for you, and for participating members of your community. We are not out to turn you into environmentalists or Earth Scientists. Our approach has never been tried (to our knowledge) before, and we hope you will find it interesting, rewarding, and significant to your work.
As you know, the water exemption was uniformly lifted a couple of years ago. The reason was our serious need to upgrade and modernize the water infrastructure in Chicago. Much of it has been in use beyond its expected life span. As a matter of fact, more than 1,000 miles of our 4,300 miles of water main is more than a century old. It is made of cast iron, and has to be replaced. Under Mayor Emanuel’s “Building a New Chicago” program, we have replaced more than 150 miles in the past two years. We are on track to replace nearly 1,000 miles in ten years.
A number of religious communities and Not-for-Profits (NFP’S) came together and worked to get the exemptions restored. The Department of Water Management took the opportunity to forge new relationships that would expand our partnerships and ensure that our partnerships would survive any disagreements on billing policy.
We are delighted to see success. We have forged new relationships that are opening new doors of good will and cooperation on significant matters such as water conservation and the role of art and celebration in civic dialogue.
The new exemption has its own application process, and you do not get the exemption until you apply and are granted it. It is a simple process, but a necessary one.
There used to be two varieties of exemption. One was given after a formal application process. The other was the result of an alderman’s submission of an ordinance calling for the exemption. The latter has gone away, so all churches and NFP’s must apply. The application is new, and has new requirements. Even if you had a formal exemption under the old rules, you are starting over.
It has always been a requirement that NFP’s have water meters to measure their water use. Some churches neglected this requirement, but now that is no longer possible. All exemption recipients must have water meters. These are installed at your expense.
There are some churches who are finding this difficult because they have either asbestos challenges or because an outdoor vault is required to contain the meter. These costs, too, are borne by the applicant. In the case of meter vaults, DWM is able to install it and establish a payment plan for you. This will get you your exemption much sooner. Asbestos is another problem, and we are willing to discuss the challenges of remediation. There may be ways to make it more affordable. But a meter is necessary.
Without a meter, you will be billed as an “assessed property”, which is based on a formula that assumes high water usage, and is based on factors like property frontage, hose frontage, and inside/outside fixtures. You are much better off being exempt and measured only for the water you actually use.
The ordinance calls for all applicants to demonstrate their status as a 501(c)(3). This is a designation granted by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, and it carries tax advantages. For the purpose of this application, the Department of Finance is willing to accept not-for-profit registration with the Illinois Secretary of State’s office. This does not carry tax advantages, but it is easier to achieve. Please visit http://www.ilsos.gov/nfparticles/ and call me if you have any questions. I can put you in touch with the specialist in Secretary Jesse White’s office.
We are preparing online (or printed) tools for a complete water audit of church facilities. These will be self guided audits to look for conservation opportunities. We will look for possible leaks (e.g. running toilets; pipe leaks), use of low-flow fixtures, staff practices, outdoor irrigation, and other possibilities.
We will also be looking at storm water management, since basement flooding is a serious challenge in Chicago, and rain water can be easily harvested and put to other purposes. It is also important to protect our basements from flooding, since that can be expensive to clean up and damaging to whatever is in the basements.
We will also have tools online to assist you in planning any improvements you see as useful. We will leave the choices to you, since any actions should yield benefits in both the short and long terms. Our goal is to help you identify such actions, and assist you in taking them. You will want to implement the inexpensive, easy steps first. These are the “no-brainers” like stopping a toilet from running. Longer term projects may include the replacement of a cooling system that uses lots of water. We want to be helpful in planning such projects, and looking for the best ways to do it. To that end, we are working with private sector businesses and not-for-profits to assemble resources and experts to put at your service.
In addition, we can be of assistance in staff training. We have the ability to print material (approved by you) to help volunteers and staff use water wisely and efficiently. Such training can be as simple as posting reminders where water is used.
With respect to storm water, we can coordinate to use City resources, if we are engaged in real education for members and neighbors. This concept has been approved by appropriate City departments, and will be subject to review of the specifics.
It is important for you to understand how the water exemption affects your sewer bill. The sewer charges carry only a partial exemption, and this does not change with the new approach. Every six months, you have an exemption worth $500. Once that threshold is reached, you should expect an actual bill for anything over that amount. Now, the sewer charges are calculated as a percentage of the water charges. This year, they are 96%. So, if you are wasting water—even with a 100% discount—your sewer charges are calculated on the total water that passes through your meter. That means it is clearly in your interest to keep water use efficient and to conserve where possible.
From the start, we have all agreed that teaching is an important component of any good conservation plan. The idea is that WE are the environment, and we should be using all resources available. Your teaching authority— and the congregations you reach— are among these resources. If we can make savings of water and money available to others, we are serving the cause. If we can spare our friends the miseries of flooding, we must.
We hope you will consider speaking to your communities directly about the efforts we are making, but we can also supply you with printed material for distribution with bulletins or in your vestibule. You, of course, would have prior approval over anything along these lines.
Art is one of the best means of teaching. We propose to do this in a couple of ways. First, when actual steps are being taken, we have artists who can occupy children and interested adults in making art that reflects what is being accomplished. Art distills meaning. Art teaches others without being ponderous. Art reminds us of the values that motivate our actions. We can make art that people take home, and even design art that might have a place in the church after the fact.
We are working with musicians, circus performers, and others to be available for special events honoring the planet and the efforts of your members. We are also working on means to support that effort that does not come from your budgets.
In addition, we are working with Chambers of Commerce to see if we can assemble real rewards like discounts and coupons from member businesses to reward your community’s efforts towards better water use practices. The idea is that each time you take a positive step on the implementation of your plan, these savings would be yours to distribute you the people in your pews. In this program, the businesses would be reaching qualified sets of prospective customers, the members of the community would find conservation steps are both appreciated and rewarding, and you are able to turn to them for both approval and assistance in the work.
What is next
Having lain this all out for you, the next step is to make sure you:
We are attempting to take a moment of change and make it a moment of new possibilities. We can support your efforts to serve your direct community and the larger community in your neighborhood and city. We are eager to do so. We hope you will join us in this time of re-invention and help us discover its possibilities.