CHICAGO
06/19/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Forum On Water Privatization Tonight; Water Could Be Next Utility Sold Off

Chicagoans are understandably wary of privatization deals, where the city sells off public services to private contractors for an immediate payoff. But still, the deals are in the works -- everything from airports to the lottery may have private-sector involvement in its future.

Add water to the list, say two nonprofit groups. And watch out.

A Monday night forum co-sponsored by nationwide nonprofit Food & Water Watch and the Public Interest Research Group will discuss the possible privatization of Chicago water utilities. The groups argue that such a move would lead to more expensive and dirtier water for the city.

Flyers announcing the forum described water privatization as "another short-sighted sale that could hit you in the pocketbook and threaten your access to clean water."

Chicago's two great experiments with privatization thus far have had decidedly mixed results. In both cases -- the 99-year lease of the Chicago Skyway in 2004, and the 75-year lease of Chicago's parking meters in 2008 -- rates have gone up steeply since privatization. And in both cases, the city has used the influx in cash to pay off short-term operating expenses instead of reinvesting or saving the money, so that much of the over $2 billion that the leases generated is already gone with many decades of private control remaining.

Still, some fiscal conservatives favor privatization as a means of making the city's services more efficient and reducing its expenses.

Laurence Msall of the Civic Federation is one such advocate. Provided that the contract is made through competitive bidding and the city invests its proceeds properly, Msall believes that water privatization is a good deal for Chicago.

"I don't know that the citizens of Chicago care very much who is providing their water as long as it's of high quality and safe," he told the Community Media Workshop.

Other advocates for the deal point out that many towns and cities are perfectly happy with water delivered from private companies instead of municipal agencies.

But a number of villages in Illinois have had less than rosy experiences with water privatization. CMW reports that after repeated and steep rate increases, and an attorney general's investigation into murky record-keeping, Illinois American Water has provoked the ire of many of its municipal clients.

Now, Homer Glen, Bolingbrook, Woodridge, Romeoville and Lemont are banding together to buy back their privatized water. As Homer Glen Mayor Jim Daley told the Homer Horizon:

The only solution to these outrageous rate increases is to buy the system. IAW has come back to the trough too many times; they have been very piggish about their rates. The residents are fed up and it is our responsibility to find a solution.

Tonight's forum on Chicago water privatization is unabashedly opposed to such a deal. The title of the flyer announcing the discussion is "Preventing Another Taxpayer Ripoff." The event is free, and will be held at the Chopin Theater, 1543 W. Division, at 7 p.m.