The Daily Line:
Summary: The agency responsible for sopping up flood runoff and cleaning Cook County’s wastewater will see its budget shrink in 2020, reducing its share of property taxes on the average home. The district’s budget will shrink due to less intensive construction plans and “efficiencies” created by eliminating 14 vacant positions, according to Brian Perkovich, the executive director of the district.
“This budget is a fiscally responsible spending plan that supports our mission to protect the water environment and protect public safety,” Perkovich said before commissioners cast their votes on Thursday. “The budget emphasizes consistent maintenance of the water reclamation plants and supports local flood control initiatives.”
The district treats about 1.4 billion gallons of waste water each day, controls 76 miles of waterways and operates 34 stormwater detention reservoirs. It also provides grants to municipalities to pay for infrastructure projects to make surfaces more permeable and less prone to flooding. The district employs 1,953 people.
At approximately $1.15 billion, the district’s approved budget for 2020 comes in about $70.3 million below the allocated budget for 2019. The district draws 68.7 percent of its revenue from property taxes, while the rest comes from grants, state programs and investment returns. About 6 percent of all property taxes levied on Chicago residents flow into the water reclamation district’s funds. Even though the district is budgeted to raise its tax levy by about $9.3 million, or 1.4 percent, officials expect its portion of property owners’ tax bills to shrink.
An earlier version of the 2020 budget totalled approximately $1.09 billion, but a series of amendments approved on Thursday added $63.2 million back in, according to district spokesperson Allison Fore.
The amendments included about a $30 million addition to the district’s Capital Improvements Bond Fund, restoring some of the approximately $165 million year-over-year decrease in capital funding that was originally projected. Commissioners also voted to add $12 million the district had derived from the $300 million tax-increment financing surplus Mayor Lori Lightfoot declared this year for the city of Chicago.
The Capital Improvements Bond Fund does not draw its revenue from taxpayers, which is why the budget decrease did not translate to a smaller property tax levy, according to district Treasurer Mary Ann Boyle.
The capital budget “fluctuates from year to year based on the timing of different projects,” Perkovich told The Daily Line.
The district plans to spend more than $17 million next year on its largest ongoing project, the second stage of the McCook Reservoir, which is planned to hold about 6.5 billion gallons of water by the time it is completed in 2029. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provided $33.8 million for the project this year, according to officials.
Workers also broke ground in 2019 on the 600-acre Addison Creek Reservoir, which would hold about 200 million gallons of water in the Chicago’s west suburbs.
“As changing weather patterns meet a region full of impervious pavement, we continue to allocate more resources to manage stormwater and mitigate flooding,” Comm. Kari Steele wrote in a letter to commissioners. Steele is president of the board of commissioners this year.
The budget calls for a $24.8 million boost in the district’s Stormwater Management Fund, which pays for grants and intergovernmental agreements with municipalities and school districts to replace concrete with so-called green infrastructure — like trees, plant boxes and permeable pavement — that help stormwater seep into the ground instead of pooling on the ground. The district budgeted $116.26 million for the Stormwater Management Fund in 2020.
Reclamation district Comm. Debra Shore praised the district’s staff by pointing to a letter from Laurence Msall, president of the non-profit fiscal watchdog The Civic Federation, in which he told commissioners that the federation would “redirect” its “policy and research resources” to de-prioritize the water reclamation district.
“The MWRD, in our view, has recently made some significant improvements in its financial practices,” Msall wrote. “Examples of these improvements include better pension and retirement benefits funding and enhanced long-term financial planning and capital planning.”
Shore called Msall’s letter “a recognition that we’ve established some excellent processes for far-sighted budgeting.”
“In a way, it’s kind of a back-handed compliment that so many other agency budgets warrant their attention and deep review, that their limited resources were better devoted elsewhere,” Shore said.
Shore also gave a hat-tip to Boyle for transferring $20 million of the district’s investment income into its retirement fund.
The district has a AAA bond rating from the Fitch ratings agency. Its retirement fund is 56.5 percent funded, according to the budget.
Friends of the Chicago River Executive Director Margaret Frisbie threw her support behind the budget, writing in a statement Thursday that the district’s efforts to treat dirty water are crucial to softening the effects of climate change.
“Friends of the Chicago River applauds the millions of dollars in the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District budget earmarked for green infrastructure, which will help reduce sewage and stormwater pollution in the Chicago River system,” Frisbie wrote. “The Climate Crisis is bringing more intense storms that overwhelm the sewer system, resulting in untreated sewer being released into the waterway through combined sewer overflows. Nature-based green infrastructure can help address that very real problem that threatens the health of people, plants, and wildlife.”
Next year will also be the first full year that the district is overseen by an inspector general. In April, the board of commissioners relented to years of prodding from government watchdogs by voting to set aside $600,000 for Cook County Independent Inspector General Patrick Blanchard to open an office in the water district’s River North headquarters.
“It’s important to have an IG,” Steele told The Daily Line on Thursday. “I know this is a fair organization, but it’s also important for the public to feel comfortable. I think it helps us with our transparency.”