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Since Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced last month that water rates for Chicago and the surrounding 125 suburbs that buy water from the city could increase by 70 percent over the next four years, as part of a plan to revamp Chicago’s aging sewers, suburban officials have nervously awaited official word of a cost hike.

“If the City of Chicago is going to attempt to improve their infrastructure on the backs of our customers, I think that’s unfair,” Mayor Anthony Calderone said. “Their infrastructure needs, those costs should be borne by their users.”

If Emanuel’s proposal survives the city’s budget hearings, proceeds from the increased rates will be used to improve Chicago’s outdated water and sewer systems, which, according to Emanuel, are long overdue for an overhaul. 

Chicago relies on suburbs that purchase its Lake Michigan Water for a considerable amount of the city’s water revenue: In 2010, alone, 47 percent of Chicago’s water revenue came from the suburbs, according to Tom Laporte, a spokesperson for Chicago’s Department of Water Management.

The water-rate hikes have yet to be approved as part of Emanuel’s budget plan for fiscal year 2012, but suburban leaders, like Calderone, are concerned that their constituents will be paying for projects that do not directly benefit them. 

Laporte asserts that repairs to suburban feeder mains, water purification plants and the conversion of four pumping stations from steam to electric are all part of the planned renovations that will ultimately benefit both the city and suburbs.

The proposed increase will raise the rate at which municipalities pay for water 70 percent by 2015, hiking the cost of 1,000 gallons of water from $2.01 to $3.82. A 25 percent increase that’s suggested for 2012 would be the largest single-year jump since 1981, and would bring the water rate to $2.51.

Rises in the water rate are not uncommon: the city has raised the water rate 31 out of the last 34 years. The rate has been increasing more dramatically since 2008, though, rising 44 percent from 2008-2010. Even with these increases, Chicago’s current water rate is low when compared to similarly sized cities.

“Chicago has the lowest water rate of any medium-to-large sized city except for Memphis, Tenn.,” Laporte said.  Memphis charges a rate of $2 per 1,000 gallons.

Sewer rates for Chicago citizens will rise as well, from 86 percent to 100 percent of the gross water bill, by 2015.

While suburban communities may disagree with footing the bill for city projects, by law, the city must charge the same water rate for all of its users, Laporte said.  And many community leaders acknowledge that little can be done when the city chooses to raise its water rates.

“If they end up taking action to raise their prices, we have no alternative but to increase our water rates to our customers,” Calderone said. “Our hands would be kind of tied, because they’re the producer.”

What the rise in the water rate means to the residential and commercial consumer varies from village to village. The majority of suburbs charge rates higher than the Chicago water rate, up to $13 per 1,000 gallons in some cases, in order to cover their own operating costs. The average suburban water rate was $5.22 per 1,000 gallons in 2010, $3.21 over the cities’ water rate.

In 2010, for instance, the village’s water rate was $3.60 for residences and $5.69 for commercial entities. For now, many towns await the final word from Chicago, though.

In accordance with Illinois state law, the new budget will be reviewed by the Chicago City Council. The council must then approve a balanced budget by no later than December 31. 

Nick Moroni contributed to this article