Chicago Suburb Fires New Salvo in Water War

CHICAGO (CN) – Skokie, Illinois, has intensified a dispute with neighboring city Evanston over the price it pays for water from Lake Michigan, claiming in court that its hiked rates are unconstitutional because Evanston charges other nearby municipalities less.

The Chicago suburbs of Evanston and Skokie have been at loggerheads over water charges since late 2016 when a long-term agreement to supply water to Skokie expired, and the parties began to negotiate new rates.

Evanston claims that it proposed higher rates because Skokie had been underpaying for water drawn from Lake Michigan. When the parties could not agree to new terms, Evanston sued Skokie last year for a declaratory judgment that the rate of $2.06 per 1,000 gallons of water is reasonable under Illinois law.

Evanston, Chicago’s immediate northern suburb, sells treated water from the lake to hundreds of thousands of customers. Evanston, a poorer city per capita, is on Lake Michigan. Skokie is inland.

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Chicago federal court, Skokie, three of its residents and a nut company sued Evanston, Mayor Steve Hagerty and other officials, claiming Evanston is charging Skokie 264 to 307 percent more than other neighboring municipalities, including Niles and Morton Grove.

Skokie-based Georgia Nut Company argues that it depends on a fair market price for water. The plaintiffs are represented by Skokie attorney Michael Lorge.

“The use and enjoyment of Lake Michigan water is a right that Skokie plaintiffs enjoy, as do all other businesses and residences of Illinois, and Skokie plaintiffs are entitled to equal access and a fair market price for water,” the 33-page complaint states.

The lawsuit seeks a declaration that an Evanston ordinance setting water rates violates the Skokie’s equal protection rights under the Fifth and 14th Amendments of the Constitution. It also wants a judge to order Evanston to sell water at same market rates to all customers.

Evanston Mayor Hagerty wrote in an email Thursday that he had not yet reviewed the complaint and was withholding comment while he consulted with the city manager and law department.

Evanston counsel Michelle Masoncup declined to comment. She said that Evanston’s 2017 lawsuit against Skokie is still pending and is at the pleading stage.

According the complaint, Niles and Morton Grove will pay 78 cents per 1,000 gallons while the villages of Arlington Heights, Buffalo Grove, Des Plaines, Mount Prospect and Wheeling will pay 67 cents per 1,000 gallons of Lake Michigan. Skokie, by contrast, says it will pay $2.06.

In its September 2017 lawsuit, Evanston noted that Skokie was paying less than many other water customers in “comparable communities.” Chicago, for example, charged more than 60 municipalities $3.88 per 1,000 gallons, while Highland charged Deerfield and other communities $2.69. Evanston charged its resident customers $3.09, according to the city’s court filing.

Evanston has delivered treated water for 74 years. As the municipalities entered into negotiations for a new wholesale water supply contract in February 2017, Skokie claims Evanston tried to keep secret the rates it was negotiating with Morton Grove and Niles because it wanted to gouge Skokie.

Elected officials made clear that they wanted to charge Skokie higher rates because they claimed Skokie had underpaid for water in years past, according to Skokie’s complaint.

Evanston has proposed building a $20 million reservoir, according to the Chicago Tribune. Wednesday’s filing says the city has an $11 million budget deficit that it “seeks to plug with its discriminatory wholesale water rates on the Skokie plaintiffs.”

The complaint notes that private water supplies have to demonstrate that water rates are in the public interest, but cities like Evanston can “impose rates by unchecked and unjustified fiat.”

Residents Elaine Jacobson, Paul Pitalis and Robert Quane joined Skokie and the Georgia Nut Company in the lawsuit.

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