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Palos Hills could get soaked by Oak Lawn’s water distribution cost overruns and larger bills

  • Written by Joe Boyle

The Palos Hills Board discussed in length the subject of water and the larger monthly bills they will have to pay during the committee-of-the-whole meeting last Thursday night.

The cost to modernize the regional water network supplied by Oak Lawn has become more expensive than originally planned. Oak Lawn buys water from Chicago and sells it to 12 south suburbs, including Palos Hills. Other local municipalities that purchase water through Oak Lawn are Chicago Ridge, Orland Park, Palos Park and Tinley Park.

With Oak Lawn’s distribution system turning 50 years old a few years back, an upgrade became necessary and the communities receiving water from the village agreed to pay for it. The cost of the project was supposed to be $171 million but has since been revised, according to CDM Smith, the Oak Lawn firm that is overseeing the project.

The work was originally supposed to be completed in 2018 but has since been delayed until 2021, according to CDM.

The current figure for the completion of the project is $221 million, according to Palos Hills Mayor Gerald Bennett. The mayor said that will mean a rise in monthly water bills from $9.97 to $12.92.

“We don’t have any choice,” said Bennett. “It’s either that or we don’t have water. Oak Lawn’s initial estimates were way off. We are monitoring the situation but there is not much we can do about it.”

Bennett said that fortunately the city had established a capital fund that could help them cope with unexpected rising costs. However, with the water bill increase, barely enough will be available for future road or other infrastructure repairs next year, said Bennett.

The mayor pointed out that the upgrades to the water treatment center in Oak Lawn were necessary. The majority of communities will benefit from the improvements. However, some communities will benefit more than others, Bennett said.

“It’s Oak Lawn’s system and they can pick the engineers,” Bennett added. “Lemont, Mokena, Tinley – they are growing so they will see the benefits.”

Oak Lawn officials have said that getting a new water line along ComEd and Cook County Forest Preserve District property has created delays and higher costs. The village had to get the approval of ComEd and the county. Construction of a new water line has yet to begin.

Despite these setbacks, Bennett remains optimistic and points to the value of having a capital fund.

“If we didn’t have that capital fund, we would have to eat $8 million,” the mayor said. “But we have no debt. We are a debt free system and that is an oddity in itself.”

Ald. Martin Kleefisch (1st Ward) wonders if some conversations should take place with Oak Lawn officials.

“Is there any talk of any recourse with the other towns that Oak Lawn could pay some of these costs? I’m wondering if something could be done,” Kleefisch said.

Bennett smiled at Kleefisch’s suggestion.

“That was my argument in the beginning,” Bennett said. “We met with 10 towns and talked about that. If there were any overruns, Oak Lawn had to come back to us, I felt. ”

Unless some further negotiations can be arranged in the future, the project will cost Palos Hills about $8 million over 20 years. Other municipalities will see larger increases.

But Bennett reminded everyone that the water distribution system will be more efficient.

“It’s Lake Michigan water coming to us,” Bennett said. “”We are getting good, clean water coming to Palos Hills.”