By Marla Donato, Chicago Sun-Times

If you think Chicago’s parking meter lease deal was a bad idea, wait till you hear what could be in store for the city’s water.

That was the basic take-away message for about 120 people packed into a Wicker Park theater basement Monday night at a forum hosted by Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) to discuss how Chicago’s water could be next up on Mayor Daley’s privatization list.

Panelists at the forum, including Jon Keesecker of Food & Water Watch, outlined nightmarish examples of water-system management by private companies across the area and nation, claiming that many rates tripled while water quality and delivery systems deteriorated and leaks kept leaking and meters kept clicking.

When pressed, Waguespack said he knows of no announced proposal or deal for the city’s water management, but he was quick to point out it could happen in a Chicago minute, just as the city cut its 75-year parking meter lease deal. So Waguespack said the time to mobilize is now, and he is rounding up aldermanic support for a proposal to make such matters more transparent, including mandating a public hearing at least 30 days before a Council vote on transactions exceeding $100 million.

Waguespack said 14 aldermen back his measure, which goes a few steps further than Ald. Edward M. Burke’s (14th) ordinance, which requires at least 15 days of Council consideration for the sale or lease of city assets. Burke’s measure was passed following the public outcry after the parking meter deal. Waguespack also calls for more preliminary independent fiscal evaluations and a 30-year limit on leases.

When questioned recently at an impromptu news conference with Columbia College journalism students, Daley did not dismiss the notion that the city might entertain an offer to lease the city’s water management. He simply responded that everything is on the table.

Daley defended the privatization of assets and services as something other cities have done and as a means to head off a fiscal meltdown. He blamed unions for running up costs, saying that private firms can operate more “efficiently.”

That argument took a beating at the Monday night meeting and in a report issued by the Food & Water Watch, which estimated “Chicago could save 20 percent to 50 percent on a 20-year loan by using municipal bond financing instead of private financing” and “over a 20-year water system lease, consumers would have to pay two to three dollars for every dollar that the city receives in a concession fee.”

Last week, Manuel Flores, acting chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission, warned Illinois American Water Co. that it “cannot view Illinois ratepayers as an open checkbook.”

Flores made the comment while announcing that the ICC had voted unanimously to cut more than $19 million from the water company’s requested annual $61 million rate increase for its 317,000 statewide customers. Even with that cut, the ICC says, the company’s Chicago area customers will see water bills jump at least 26 percent.

Rachel Weber, an urban planning professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told the Monday night gathering that privatization has been undertaken most successfully in cities that included public interest components such as oversight and review clauses. Without them, she said, it becomes an expensive, onerous task to reclaim the water taps.

The Midwest is prime hunting territory for lease asset water brokers looking for cash-strapped municipalities. They don’t have to look hard; this shifting water resource management landscape is the subject of a May 12 Metropolitan Planning Council and Openlands forum in Chicago.

Municipal control, free of shareholder demands, seems the better bet for a water delivery and management system that is affordable and aboveboard.

One thing you can count on: You can live in Chicago and never need a parking space, but you cannot live without water.

So just what is clean water worth?

Waguespack was right when he called it “invaluable.”

Trying to put a price on clean and healthy water is like trying to place a value on life itself.

Maybe we should just take water off the city’s “for sale” table.

Marla Donato is a Chicago journalist and educator. She blogs at vitaldirt.com.