It took two sentences for Palos Hills Ald. Joan Knox to sum up the four-page ordinance approved by the council last week that increases the monthly capital improvement fee residents pay by $3.35 starting Sept. 1.
“There’s just no choice for the council,” the first ward alderman said. “It’s not a pretty vote, but it’s something we have to do.”
Knox’s statement at the meeting Aug. 17 was the consensus of the council who reluctantly approved the hike, which will raise the capital improvement fee to $12.92 beginning Sept. 1. The fee is a line item on the water bill.
Palos Hills officials said the increase is necessary to cover the city’s share of the approximate $225 million project Oak Lawn is undertaking to modernize its regional water system. Palos Hills is one of 12 south suburban communities to receive Lake Michigan water from Oak Lawn.
Project engineers CDM Smith originally estimated the work would cost around $172 million but have since upped the amount by around $50 million, Palos Hills Mayor Gerald Bennett said. The new estimate, which is partially due to Oak Lawn needing to acquire easements and right-of-ways, has made Palos Hills’ tab rise from around $5 million initially to $8 million, Bennett said.
“This is not an obligation we wanted, but we are part of a water system and unless somebody has an idea where we are going to get good, clean water I don’t see an alternative,” Bennett said. “We fought [the increase] and were actually the last to sign off, but at some point you have to pay. We did the best we could on behalf of the citizens to try and keep our costs further down from what they ended up being. We’re part of the consortium and the majority voted to move ahead with this project.”
Ald. AJ Pasek (3rd Ward) shared a similar view as Bennett.
“I don’t like it either,” Pasek said of increasing the monthly capital improvement fee. “But we’re already on the hook to pay our share of the improvement project. [Former Public Works Commissioner] Dave Weakley did his due diligence on examining what our alternatives were and there weren’t any better alternatives.”
“This was the best deal we could have struck,” Knox added.
Ald. Pauline Stratton (2nd Ward) cast the lone vote against the ordinance. When questioned by Bennett as to the reason for her “no” vote, Stratton stated the “amount of money [for the project] was ridiculous.”
“I don’t have a problem with the system being upgraded,” she said. “I have a problem that the cost is so far over in millions and millions of dollars from what we first estimated.”
He then asked if she had another idea for obtaining water and Stratton suggested checking the cost of joining the Justice-Willow Springs Water Commission.
Bennett said Weakley explored that option and in order to join, Palos Hills would need to build its own pumping house and water towers.
“The cost of that would be substantially more than our obligation, even at $8 million, to Oak Lawn,” Bennett said.
Palos Hills City Attorney George Pappas said there is no legal recourse the city can take against Oak Lawn for the project’s substantial cost increase.
Palos Hills has purchased its water from Oak Lawn since 1968, Bennett said. If Palos Hills opted not to fund the improvement project Bennett said Oak Lawn “probably wouldn’t cut us off but would charge us retail rates.”
“That would be much, much higher than the wholesale rate the residents are paying right now,” he said.
Residents will not see a rise in their water rates — only the capital improvement fee — come Sept. 1, city officials said.
The improvements to the Oak Lawn water system include the construction of a 16-mile, 60-inch diameter looped transmission main that will allow the system to “meet the redundancy, reliability and capacity needs for customer communities through and beyond the 2030 planning horizon,” according to information on the Village of Oak Lawn’s website.
In other news, city officials honored Cheryl Johnstone with a plaque for her 42 years of service to Palos Hills on the eve of her retirement. Johnstone spent the last several years as the city’s deputy clerk and was lauded for her work.
“I can’t say enough about Cheryl Johnstone and what she has contributed to the city,” Bennett said. “Your demeanor and attitude as an employee has been exemplary. It is my honor to thank you and wish you a happy retirement on behalf of the city council.”
Johnstone admitted she’s “not a public speaker,” but wanted to say “thank you” to the council.
“Everyone has a special place in my heart,” she said. “It has been a pleasure.”