Nine years ago, the Mankiewicz family breathed new life into a long-abandoned car wash.
Empty for five years, the family took over the building and has operated it as Udo's Prairie State Car Wash ever since. Water is obviously a big part of running a car wash, and with the City of Chicago Heights at the end of its 30-year water contract with Hammond, IN, water will become much more expensive for this business..
The new contract, as it stands .
Max Mankiewicz's eyes widened when he learned about the new rates.
"It would be killing us," said Mankiewicz, who helps with the day-to-day operations at Udo's. "It would put us out."
Some might say businesses in Cook County have a lot on their plate already, with taxes burning holes in owners' pockets and customers strapped for cash. Mankiewicz said a higher water bill is the last thing anyone needs.
"Business isn’t going up," Mankiewicz said. "Nobody’s got any extra money, and if they keep adding bills on us and everything keeps going up, we can’t raise prices. Nobody can afford anything anymore."
But the Heights is fighting back.
The Next Steps
The City of Chicago Heights filed for an injunction with the Indiana Utility Regulatory Committee to re-negotiate the rates, and has a hearing scheduled for Nov. 9. But first the city has a federal court hearing with Hammond on Nov. 5 in South Bend, IN.
Chicago Heights Corporation Counsel T.J. Somer said the Heights filed a separate federal injunction because part of Hammond's argument is that the IURC has no jurisdition over its dealings with customers outside of Indiana.
"It’s our position that they do and that the original 30-year contract we had more-or-less subjected that we agree with Hammond that IURC has jurisdiction over it," Somer said.
The Chicago Problem
Somer has mentioned the City of Chicago as the only other option besides well water, but Chicago's rates are even higher.
Even if the Heights picks what it sees as the lesser of two evils in Hammond, the Chicago rates could have a direct impact on what Heights residents and business owners pay. After the first two years of Hammond's proposed contract, Chicago Heights would have to pay 88 percent of whatever the Chicago rate is.
"As a municipality, Chicago’s unregulated," Somer said. "They don’t have to go to the Illinois Commerce Commission to get a rate increase. So if five years from now Rahm Emanuel sees he’s got a $50 million pension gap, he can say, ‘I’m going to raise my water rates,’ and now we just went to 88 percent of that."
Hoping for the Best
Somer declined to guess at the city's chances of winning in court, calling the question irrelevant due to the circumstances.
"We have no choice in this matter," Somer said. "This isn’t something we wanted to undertake, but when they’re going to raise our rates five times, almost quintuple the damn things, what are we supposed to do? Lie down and let our citizens just eat it? That’s the easy way out."
As for Mankiewicz, he's just hoping his family's car wash business doesn't have to resort to drastic measures to fight the rising water prices.
"Hopefully it works out," Mankiewicz said. "In nine years, we raised prices 50 cents. We’re trying to keep it down as much as we can because nobody’s got any extra income. To raise prices, I’m sure we’d lose a lot of customers.
"If this happens, it would be a nightmare for us."
Read our previous story about the Hammond-Heights water dispute.