Homewood explores water options, will negotiate with Chicago Heights

The Homewood village board at its Tuesday meeting unanimously approved a motion to direct village staff to work toward a contract with Chicago Heights to source Lake Michigan water. 
 
Village Manager Jim Marino and Director of Public Works John Schaefer presented the board with four options to pursue water after Homewood’s contract with Harvey expires in 2022.
 
Marino said the village could begin planning and seeking permits for construction of a 36-inch water main into the Chicago Heights water system in September of this year with construction potentially finished in September 2022. 
 
Harvey buys water from Chicago and resells it to Homewood and other surrounding communities. Homewood serves as a water provider for Flossmoor. 
 
Chicago sued Harvey in 2012 for past-due payments. In January 2017, a Cook County judge ordered Harvey to begin paying down over $22 million it owes to Chicago in unpaid water bills. Homewood had been paying Harvey for water over the years, but the court learned Harvey had been using the water fund to cover other expenses.

As part of that suit, Robert Handler is the court-appointed receiver assessing and overseeing the Harvey water system to ensure those bills are paid.
 
Handler asked Homewood to enter into a new contract at a higher rate--initially $7.17 per 1,000 gallons--according to village documents. That number has since fallen to $5.57. 
 
Homewood currently pays $4.51 per 1,000 gallons. The village commissioned engineering firm Baxter and Woodman to determine Harvey’s cost of delivering water to Homewood. Baxter and Woodman determined that rate to be between $4.51 and $4.64. If the cost of necessary improvements to Harvey’s infrastructure is included, the rate would be $5.16. 
 
Chicago Heights, which purchases its Lake Michigan water from Hammond, Ind., approached Homewood more than a year ago with an offer to sell water at $4.05 per 1,000 gallons. 
 
That option would also require Homewood to fund construction of a water main to tap into the Chicago Heights water network and connect in Glenwood or Thornton. Marino said the cost estimate is between $7.5 and $8 million. Homewood has enough money in its water fund to pay for that project without taking on additional debt, he said.
 
A second option would be to buy water from Oak Lawn, which purchases from Chicago. The Oak Lawn water rate would be $6.66 and would require a $27 million pipe project, according to Schaefer. Homewood would need to take a loan or issue a bond to pay for that main. 
 
Chicago has raised its water rates by 60 percent in the last seven years, according to Marino. Hammond rates would only increase annually according to the consumer price index. Those hikes would be capped at three percent.
 
Another possibility was for Homewood to join South Holland, East Hazel Crest and Thornton in a water agency that would purchase and operate Harvey’s water system. No formal proposal was ever made and the cost of that undertaking is unknown, Marino said, but the suggested rate would be $4.25 per 1,000 gallons. 
 
The last option was to remain with Harvey. 
 
The state granted Homewood the ability to convert from well water to Lake Michigan water in 1982. Marino said returning to a well-water system “is no longer an option and wasn’t considered.” 
 
“I remember the enthusiasm we had when we got an allocation from the state to get Lake Michigan water. It was the most wonderful thing in the world,” Mayor Richard Hofeld said. “When we had well water in Homewood, water heaters didn’t last long. Pipes didn’t last long.”
 
Should construction of the new water infrastructure not be finished when Homewood’s contract with Harvey is finished, Marino said the village would have to negotiate a short-term agreement with Harvey to bridge the gap.
 
Village Attorney Chris Cummings said that short-term agreement would likely come at the increased rate the receiver is currently proposing.

Flossmoor Village Manager Bridget Wachtel said Wednesday that officials are still considering options on a water source. News regarding Flossmoor's water situation is likely "in the near future," she said.
 

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