News Feature | December 16, 2013

Holy Water Rates Lower Than Family Bills In New York

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome


Religious groups in New York City get much of their water for free. 

The New York Daily News reported last week this generous rule "and other water and sewer fee exemptions cost the city $22 million in 2011, according to the Independent Budget Office." Under the law, "religious institutions get up to $242 per day free, with any charges above that until $484 getting a 50 percent discount."

Families are not so lucky.

"The average family’s water bill has increased 69% from $554 a year in 2005 to $939 a year today," the report said. 

Proponents of the religious exemption say it is a drop in the bucket. They note that "religious perks amount to less than 1 percent of the $2.8 billion in total water and sewer collections," the report said. 

But the city's own watchdog, the Independent Budget Office, is questioning the breaks. 

“It still makes sense to periodically reevaluate the rationale behind the break on water bills, just like it makes sense to review any kind of spending on an ongoing basis,” Doug Turetsky, director of the Independent Budget Office, said in the Daily News

Further complicating matters is the fact that "some groups never sign up for the exemption, leading to large unpaid bills. The city does not grant any retroactive exemptions," the report said. 

Klausenberg yeshiva has unpaid bills of nearly $200,000 because it never applied for the exemption, the report said. Satmar yeshiva, "the second highest deadbeat," has $89,000 in unpaid bills. Grace A Christian Church of Adventists is "the third biggest scofflaw," the report said, "owing $86,000 after the city rejected its application for undisclosed reasons."

Water exemptions for religious groups are going out of style in other cities. 

In Chicago, “churches and other non-profits – more than 6,000 of them – [had] been granted free water service from the city," CBS Chicago reported

But last year, the city asked churches to pay their water bills, and face steep costs to install water meters. Meter installation can cost as much as several thousand dollars, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.  

"For St. Paul’s Church by-the-Lake, 7100 N. Ashland, the tab is a staggering $11,000 for an underground water meter," the report said. 

A backlash ensued, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel sought to restore some of the exemptions. 

The city will now charge churches and non-profits "based on a sliding scale, determined by their net assets. Groups and churches with less than $1 million in net assets will still get free water, while groups that are worth more than $250 million would pay full price," WBEZ reported.

For more on the intersection between religion and water including the safety of drinking holy water check out previous coverage on Water Online. 

Image credit: "Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine #3, NYC, 2009," © 2009 Thomas Claveirole, used under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license:

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